Amy Cooper, Who Falsely Accused Black Bird-Watcher, Has Charge Dismissed

By Jonah E. Bromwich

Ms. Cooper, a white woman, called 911 on the Central Park bird-watcher. After she finished a program about racial bias, the prosecution asked a judge to drop the case.

Amy Cooper was publicly shamed and lost her job after the encounter in Central Park last spring.
Amy Cooper was publicly shamed and lost her job after the encounter in Central Park last spring.Credit...Christian Cooper
Jonah E. Bromwich

The criminal case against Amy Cooper, a white woman who called the police on a Black bird-watcher in Central Park and falsely reported that he had threatened her, was dismissed on Tuesday after Ms. Cooper completed a therapeutic program that included instruction about racial biases.

At a hearing in Manhattan Criminal Court, a senior prosecutor asked a judge to dismiss the single misdemeanor charge against Ms. Cooper — falsely reporting an incident — and the judge agreed. Ms. Cooper had faced up to a year in jail if convicted.

The resolution of the case without a trial or a guilty plea was for some an anticlimactic ending to an incident that had provoked intense discussions across the country about how Black people are harmed by false reports to the police.

The prosecutor, Joan Illuzzi-Orbon, said Ms. Cooper had participated in five therapy sessions that focused in part on how racial identities shape people’s lives. Her therapist had reported that the sessions were “a moving experience” and that Ms. Cooper “learned a lot,” Ms. Illuzzi-Orbon said.

She said that Ms. Cooper had been offered the deal to attend an educational program in return for having the charge dismissed in part because it was her first arrest. The deal, the prosecutor said, was “designed not just to punish but to educate and promote community healing.”

Ms. Illuzzi-Orbon said the resolution fell under the rubric of restorative justice, an alternative to traditional prosecution that looks at the harm done and seeks reconciliation among the parties, including the offender, the victim and the community.

Ms. Cooper’s lawyer, Robert Barnes, thanked the Manhattan district attorney’s office on Twitter for what he called “a thorough & honest inquiry.”

“We thank them for their integrity and concur w/ the outcome,” he wrote. “Others rushed to the wrong conclusion based on inadequate investigation & they may yet face legal consequences.”

Ms. Cooper’s dispute with the bird-watcher, Christian Cooper, rocked New York City last spring after video of a highly agitated Ms. Cooper calling the police and falsely telling them that “an African-American man is threatening my life” went viral. The video of their encounter, posted by Mr. Cooper’s sister on Twitter, has been watched more than 45 million times.

The dismissal of the charge against Ms. Cooper — who is not related to Mr. Cooper — provoked frustration online, where some critics of the district attorney’s office questioned why Ms. Cooper had received what they believed was lenient treatment and suggested it was because she is white.

Eliza Orlins, a candidate for Manhattan district attorney, said in a tweet that the dismissal “isn’t surprising.”

“This is how the system was designed to function — to protect the privileged from accountability,” she said.

A report released by the Manhattan district attorney’s office in December said that between February and June last year, 328 people were referred to the organization that handled Ms. Cooper’s case, Manhattan Justice Opportunities, which provides alternatives to incarceration. Forty-six percent were Black and 23 percent were Hispanic, numbers that match the percentage of those groups arrested in Manhattan in 2018, the latest year for which data is available.

For his part, Mr. Cooper has been reluctant to speak about Ms. Cooper, for whom he has shown compassion. In an interview with The New York Times shortly after the encounter, Mr. Cooper said that while he was not excusing Ms. Cooper’s racism, “I don’t know if her life needed to be torn apart.”

Asked about the dismissal of the charge, Mr. Cooper said there were more important issues for people fighting for racial justice to worry about, such as the political battle to make Washington, D.C., a state.

“I am far more outraged by the U.S. Congress, which continues to deny the mostly Black and brown people of the District of Columbia statehood, and the representation every American deserves, than by anything Amy Cooper did,” he said. “That gross racial injustice could be fixed by Congress now, today, and that is what people should be focused on, not last year’s events in Central Park.”

The encounter between Mr. Cooper and Ms. Cooper began when Mr. Cooper, who frequently goes bird-watching in Central Park, encountered Ms. Cooper, who had neglected to leash her dog as is required in most sections of the park.

Mr. Cooper asked Ms. Cooper to leash the dog and began recording her on his cellphone. She demanded that he stop filming her. She told him that she intended to call the police and to tell them, “There’s an African-American man threatening my life.”

When Mr. Cooper held his ground, she made good on her promise. On the phone call, she mentioned multiple times that Mr. Cooper was Black.

The video was posted to Twitter on Memorial Day and immediately went viral, setting off widespread criticism of Ms. Cooper and focusing attention on the danger of false accusations made to the police that target Black and Hispanic people. The incident happened on the same day that George Floyd died in police custody in Minnesota, igniting protests across the country calling for more equitable treatment for Black people.

As outrage over the incident grew, Ms. Cooper was compelled to temporarily give up her dog and was fired from her job at the investment firm Franklin Templeton. In July, the Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus R. Vance Jr., decided to charge Ms. Cooper with filing a false report, one of the first charges a white person in the United States had faced for filing a false report involving a Black person.

“We will hold people who make false and racist 911 calls accountable,” Mr. Vance said later.

But prosecutors faced a problem: Mr. Cooper declined to participate in the investigation, saying Ms. Cooper had already paid a “steep price.”

In the end, prosecutors agreed to ask a judge to dismiss the charge if Ms. Cooper would go through the Manhattan Justice Opportunities program. That organization then asked Ms. Cooper to attend counseling sessions at the Critical Therapy Center in Manhattan.

Silvia M. Dutchevici, the president and founder of the center, said she could not comment on Ms. Cooper’s case or confirm that she had been a client.

“We do a critical inquiry into one’s personal beliefs and how they impact other people, how they impact the world and how they actually contribute to racism,” she said. “Can we end racism in five sessions? No.”

Sarah Maslin Nir contributed reporting.