The incident began when Christian Cooper, in the park to birdwatch on Memorial Day, asked a woman to leash her dog in an area where that’s required, and things escalated from there. In the clip that Cooper recorded on his cellphone, the woman warns Cooper — threatens him, in fact — that she’s going to call the police to falsely report that “there’s an African American man threatening my life,” which she then does: “Please send the cops immediately,” she pleads into the phone.
As a public defender in Manhattan for more than a decade, I have represented many people in similar situations. Most of their stories have followed a similar pattern:
A white person calls the police on a black man. The police arrive and take the side of his white accuser, refusing to believe his version of events. He is arrested and arraigned. An outrageous bail amount is set. His family can’t afford to buy his freedom. He gets sent to Rikers Island, where he sits for days, months or sometimes years.
Eventually, his case is resolved in some way — either because the charges are dismissed or because he decides to plead guilty to a lesser charge. In the meantime, he may have lost his job, his home, his children or some combination of the three.
Nothing like that happened to Cooper, thankfully. But the elements of the problem are plain to see.
In cases I’ve taken to trial, the district attorney has offered recordings of “hysterical 911 calls” as evidence of my clients’ guilt, urging the jury to “just listen to the fear in her voice,” saying, “You can tell she can sense a threat,” and asking questions such as, “Why would she lie?” All too often, it works.
Usually, there’s no video. On Monday, there was. You can hear “the fear” in the voice of the woman who called the police on Cooper, too.
Under normal circumstances, these stories from our criminal punishment bureaucracy can be devastating. But consider how the added risk to anyone sent to jail right now — Rikers Island has had one of the highest covid-19 infection rates in the world — increases the potential damage. Worse, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) has suspended time limits for speedy trials during the pandemic, as well as a requirement that cases be presented to a grand jury within six days of an arrest. Hundreds of New Yorkers sit in jail without even having been charged by indictment. A spurious accusation in a park could mean a death sentence.
Of course, all of this assumes the police don’t show up and deliver the death sentence on the spot. By now anyone who chooses to needlessly report a person of color to police has heard the litany of names such as George Floyd, the African American man who died just Monday after a Minneapolis police officer was filmed pinning Floyd’s neck to the ground with his knee.
Some might say the Central Park video is evidence of a criminal legal system that’s “broken.” But after years spent representing thousands of New Yorkers in court, I can attest that the reality is worse: The system is working the way it was designed to work — protecting the wealthy, connected, powerful and white, while disenfranchising already-marginalized communities of color.
What can be done? Certainly, end cash bail. We cannot allow people to sit in jail for months on end on the basis of an accusation — not when we can see with our own eyes how easy it is for this to happen.
But that only deals with one consequence of privilege. The privilege itself will be far harder to address.
There are two different sets of rules in our criminal legal system. White Americans live every day with the privilege of knowing that they can call 911 and get help. For poor people and people of color, calling for help when in danger presents a new set of risks — including the risk that they won’t be believed by police or that they’ll be charged with falsely reporting a crime.
What if false-reporting charges were brought in cases like this one? That would send a very different message. To tip the scales, there needs to be accountability for playing the privilege card.
But we can’t stop there. Our real duty is to renew our commitment to creating a very different system of justice — where a black man, falsely accused, can feel safe even without a viral video.