In a major setback for police accountability and for the rights of persons with disabilities, New York City has appealed a recent New York Supreme Court decision mandating that the New York Police Department (NYPD) turn over unedited body-worn camera footage capturing the fatal police shooting of Susan Muller, who was experiencing a mental health crisis in her home, to New York Lawyers for the Public Interest (NYLPI) and Milbank LLP. The appeal comes just after Mayor de Blasio announced that bodycam footage would be more accessible to the public, in response to a national movement to end police brutality. Nonetheless, the City appealed the critical decision that confirmed the public's right to obtain police footage and emphasized the crucial role such footage plays in promoting police transparency and accountability. The appeal will cause nearly a year's delay, at a minimum. 

Following the New York Supreme Court's decision on June 1, 2020, the City produced partial footage from some of the officers present at the time of Ms. Muller's shooting, but it includes heavy audio and visual redactions throughout. The unredacted portions of footage show that Ms. Muller was killed by the police less than 50 seconds after they arrived at her home and medical care was delayed by more than four minutes once she was shot.

“It is shocking that New York City is appealing a decision requiring the release of footage from a fatal police shooting of a woman experiencing a mental health crisis while simultaneously touting expanded public access to bodycam footage in the media,” said Marinda van Dalen, Senior Staff Attorney in the Disability Justice Program at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest (NYLPI). “The killings must stop, and the police must be replaced with health care workers as the City's first responders to individuals experiencing mental health crises. Public access to unredacted bodycam footage is key to exposing the inadequacy of police responses to mental health crises.”

On September 17, 2018, Ms. Muller called 911 to report a burglary in her home in Queens. Within one minute of the four responding police officers entering her home, Ms. Muller was shot three times and killed. Ms. Muller was experiencing a mental health crisis, and the NYPD alleged that she approached an officer with a knife. This was the tenth time that police had responded to 911 calls at Ms. Muller's house, and just eight days before, the police had transported Ms. Muller to the hospital for mental health treatment. 

The lawsuit to obtain footage of the shooting of Ms. Muller is part of a series of challenges by NYLPI to compel the NYPD to release body-worn camera footage of community members – largely Black people and other persons of color – shot by police. The team previously secured a landmark ruling in June 2019 compelling the NYPD to turn over unredacted footage of the fatal shooting of Miguel Richards, the first person the police killed after the NYPD's court-ordered pilot program for the cameras began. Mr. Richards, a foreign exchange student from Jamaica, was also experiencing a mental health crisis when police shot him 16 times and killed him, following a 15-minute confrontation.

NYLPI and pro bono counsel Milbank LLP are also petitioning for the release of footage from the March 2019 shooting of Michael Cordero and the April 2019 fatal shooting of Kawaski Trawick. Both individuals were experiencing mental health crises at the time of their violent encounters with the NYPD.  NYLPI's and Milbank's recent requests of NYPD to turn over the footage in these cases in response to the City's new body-worn camera transparency policy have gone unanswered.

“New York City's refusal to fully disclose the bodycam footage ordered by the Court is a blow to both the public's and law enforcement's important interest in transparency by the police concerning its use of force,” said Attorney Stuart Parker, former NYPD Assistant Commissioner, who participated as pro bono co-counsel.

The Milbank team includes litigation partner Jed Schwartz with associates Benjamin Reed, Marion Burke, Marguerite O'Brien, and Jasper Perkins. Along with Ms. Van Dalen and Mr. Parker, the NYLPI team includes Ruth Lowenkron, director of NYLPI's Disability Justice Program.

“Full access to body-worn camera footage from these repeated tragedies is crucial to ensuring civilian oversight of the NYPD, especially as we continue to see widespread protests against police brutality and use of excessive – and often deadly – force,” added Milbank associate Benjamin Reed.  “The public needs a complete record of this deadly police shooting; we continue to see the NYPD make significant and unwarranted redactions to footage of these incidents.”

Originally published by Milbank, July 2020

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