A civil rights advocacy group is suing the New York Police Department for bodycam footage.
The New York Lawyers for Public Interest filed a lawsuit against the NYPD for access to footage of the fatal shooting of Susan Muller.
Officers shot and killed Muller, 54, on Sept. 17, 2018, after she called 911 to report a burglary in her Queens home. Fifty seconds after entering the home, the police shot Muller, who was mentally unstable and wasn’t able to fill her antidepressant prescription at the time and had used alcohol. NYPD officials claimed that Muller approached one officer with a knife in her hand. Despite the police wearing body cams at the time, no video or audio footage of the incident has been released to the public.
Muller was known to the NYPD—the police had responded to nine 911 calls to her home since the year 2000.
Ruth Lowenkron, director of the disability justice program at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest and former NYPD Assistant Commissioner Stuart Parker, who’s volunteering his services with NYLPI and providing pro bono counsel at Milbank, filed the suit last week. Lowenkron spoke to the AmNews about the group’s history with going the legal route to obtain bodycam footage.
“We’ve become concerned throughout the years at how the city responded to individuals in mental health crises,” said Lowenkron. “We got started after the police shot Deborah Danner and we began working in coalition with a number of other groups who were concerned about how the city deals with people with mental health crises and the overlay of race issues.”
Following public reports of the Muller shooting, NYLPI made a Freedom Of Information Law request for the unedited audio and video files from all of the body-worn cams of every officer involved in the incident. NYLPI also requested unedited audio files from Muller’s 911 calls that day.
The NYPD denied NYLPI’s FOIL request, refusing to provide redacted portions of audio and video files on the basis of asserted FOIL exemptions (including a HIPAA violation). It’s not the first time they’ve done so.
“As with Miguel Richards, the NYPD’s unwillingness to disclose body camera footage of the fatal shooting of Susan Muller undermines the vital purposes of both FOIL and the body camera program to promote transparency and accountability to the public,” stated Milbank litigation associate Benjamin Reed. “It is important that the public have access to these records in order to learn from them and prevent tragic deaths like this in the future.”
After Richards, another mentally unstable person, was shot by police, the NYPD refused a FOIL request filed by the NYLPI in 2017, which the advocacy group eventually obtained via the New York State Supreme Court. They’ve made four different requests in the same vein for mentally unstable victims of police-involved shootings.
“One would have thought that with that litigation in place, they would have changed their minds on the other requests we’ve made,” said Lowenkron.
According to DCPI Spokesperson Detective Sophia Mason, “The NYPD will decline to comment on pending litigation. Please be referred to the Law Department.”