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NYC Human Rights Commission Opens Investigation Into Viral Central Park Confrontation

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/CBS News) -- The NYC Commission on Human Rights opened an investigation into an incident in Central Park in which a white woman called 911 claiming an African-American man was threatening her after he asked her to leash her dog.

The incident went viral on social media.

Melody Cooper, the sister of the man who filmed the confrontation, posted that her brother, Chris, began filming when the encounter in The Ramble began to escalate.

On the video, Chris Cooper, an avid birder, records Amy Cooper, no relation, and asks her not to approach him. She threatens to call police and say a black man is threatening her, which she does as he continues to film her.

"I'm sorry, I'm in The Ramble, and there's a man -- an African-American with a bicycle helmet -- he is recording me, and threatening me and my dog," Amy Cooper says.

The video doesn't show him threatening her.

"I wasn't gonna participate in my own dehumanization and feed that, so I just kept recording," Chris Cooper told CBS2's Jenna DeAngelis.

Once Amy Cooper leashed the dog, Chris Cooper said he stopped recording and left.

"At a time when the devastating impacts of racism in Black communities have been made so painfully clear—from racial disparities in COVID-19 outcomes, to harassment of essential workers on the frontlines—it is appalling to see these types of ugly threats directed at one New Yorker by another," said Sapna Raj, deputy commissioner of the Law Enforcement Bureau at the NYC Commission on Human Rights. "Efforts to intimidate black people by threatening to call law enforcement draw on a long, violent and painful history, and they are unacceptable."

The NYC Commission on Human Rights has the authority to fine people who violate the law and can award damages to victims, including for emotional distress.

Franklin Templeton fired Amy Cooper. In a statement posted online, the company said, "Following our internal review of the incident in Central Park yesterday, we have made the decision to terminate the employee involved, effective immediately. We do not tolerate racism of any kind at Franklin Templeton."

On Tuesday, Amy Cooper told CNN she wanted to "publicly apologize to everyone."

"I'm not a racist," she said. "I did not mean to harm that man in any way."

The video drew swift reaction and condemnation from elected officials.

"The video out of Central Park is racism, plain and simple," Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Twitter. "She called the police because he was a black man. Even though she was the one breaking the rules, she decided he was the criminal and we know why. This kind of hatred has no place in our city."

"This apology is totally inadequate," posted Mark Levine, whose district covers the Upper West Side, Washington Heights, and West Harlem near the section of Central Park where the encounter took place. "She was attempting to weaponize the race of Mr. Cooper."

The Central Park Civic Association also responded, issuing a statement asking he mayor to impose a lifetime Central Park ban on the woman "for her deliberate, racial misleading of law enforcement and violating behavioral guidelines set so that all can enjoy our city's most famous park."

"We can arrest someone for pulling a fire alarm. We can surely arrest someone for attempting to destroy and burn down a life of an innocent person," Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams said Wednesday.

Local leaders are calling on the NYPD to press charges against Amy Cooper.

It's widely known the history of police interactions with African-Americans and communities of color is painful and could be fatal.

Chris Cooper said he did not have immediate thoughts on the push to charge Amy Cooper and is now taking time to reflect, CBS2's Aundrea Cline-Thomas reports.

When CBS2 asked the NYPD to weigh in, they referred us to an interview where First Deputy Commissioner Benjamin Tucker addressed the question around filing charges.

"We're not going to pursue that. We've got bigger fish to fry ... and the DA would never prosecute that," he said.

"There is no bigger fish to fry than the institution of racism and bigotry that is pervasive in every damn institution across this city, state and this country," Public Advocate Jumaane Williams said.

The incident strikes a chord not just because of it's specific details, but because for many, the pain is all too familiar. Just this time it was captured on video.

CBS2 reached out to the Manhattan District Attorney's office. They said they are "thoroughly reviewing the matter."

In addition to losing her job, Amy Cooper reportedly also "voluntarily surrendered" her dog to the rescue she adopted it from.

CBS2 also tried to reach out to Amy Cooper. We have not heard back.

Chris Cooper told CBS2 the incident reflects a growing problem.

"It's not just about her. She tapped into something that's pervasive in our society that we all really need to address," Chris Cooper said. "We need to start treating each other as 'us' rather than as 'other.'"

(© Copyright 2020 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. CBS Interactive contributed to this report.)

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