In an important victory toward ending police abuse, New York Lawyers for the Public Interest (“NYLPI”) and Milbank LLP announced the New York Supreme Court’s decision mandating that the New York Police Department (“NYPD”) turn over body-worn camera footage capturing the fatal police shooting of Susan Muller, who was experiencing a mental health crisis in her home. The decision confirms the public’s right to obtain police footage and emphasizes the crucial role such footage plays in promoting police transparency and accountability. Moreover, it reaffirms for the NYPD that the public has a right to access these materials, including footage of the NYPD’s current response to protestors challenging police abuse and discrimination.
On September 17, 2018, Ms. Muller reported a burglary. Within one minute of the four responding, police officers entering her Queens home, Ms. Muller was shot three times and killed. At the time, 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 on the most recent occasion the police had transported Ms. Muller to the hospital for mental health treatment.
After Ms. Muller’s shooting became public, NYLPI requested unedited body-worn camera footage and audio of the incident, as well as 911 call files. The NYPD refused to release even redacted footage and audio, alleging exemptions under New York’s Freedom of Information Law. After repeated denials, NYLPI and Milbank, on a pro bono basis, jointly filed an Article 78 lawsuit in the Supreme Court of New York, New York County.
On June 1, 2020, the NYPD was ordered to provide NYLPI, Milbank and the public with unredacted footage and 911 call audio within 20 days. In granting NYLPI’s petition, the court found that “releasing body-worn camera footage promotes transparency, accountability, and public trust-building.”
“It is imperative that we continue to expose and challenge the use of force, especially lethal force, by the NYPD against people experiencing mental health crises,” said Marinda van Dalen, Senior Staff Attorney in NYLPI’s Disability Justice Program. “The killing must stop and the police must be replaced with health care workers as the City’s first responders to individuals experiencing mental health crises. While this victory is a major advancement for justice in New York, including disability civil rights, we still have more work to do.”
This lawsuit is part of a series of challenges by NYLPI and Milbank 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 significant 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 Milbank are currently petitioning for the release of footage for 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.
“The Court’s decision ordering full disclosure of the body-worn camera footage in this case furthers 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 included Litigation partner Jed Schwartz with associates Benjamin Reed, Marion Burke, Marguerite O’Brien, and Jasper Perkins. Along with Van Dalen and Parker, the NYLPI team included 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. “So much more work needs to be done, but victories like this help us hold those in power accountable and can lead to real change.”