On the Tragic Death of Deborah Danner

On the Tragic Death of Deborah Danner
Harvey Rosenthal, NYAPRS

This past Tuesday, Deborah Danner, a 66 year old woman who had endured a 30 year struggle with schizophrenia, was fatally shot by a NYPD policeman in her apartment in the Bronx.

Deborah Danner’s story was filled with both dignity and tragedy. She shared it in a heartbreakingly candid piece she wrote in 2012 called ‘Living with Schizophrenia.”

Among her most telling, tragic words: “We are all aware of the all too frequent news stories about the mentally ill who come up against law enforcement instead of mental health professionals and end up dead.”

And that we should be “teaching law enforcement how to deal with the mentally ill in crisis so as to prevent another “Bumpers”’ incident, (whereby) a very large woman was killed by police by shotgun because she was perceived as a ‘threat to the safety’ of several grown men who were also police officers. They used deadly force to subdue her because they were not trained sufficiently in how to engage the mentally ill in crisis. This was not an isolated incident.”

I’ll share that, as they had done a number of times without incident in the past, the NYPD had responded to a 911 call from a neighbor, who reported that Deborah Danner had been acting erratically, something she describes in her story.

And that, while several officers and Deborah’s sister waited in the hallway, NYPD Sergeant Hugh Barry, an 8 year veteran who had never previously fired a gun on duty, arrived and entered Deborah’s apartment and persuaded her to put down a pair of scissors.

And that when she picked up a baseball bat and tried to swing it at him, Sergeant Barry fired twice, fatally wounding her.

You should know that the NYC Mayor and Police Chief responded swiftly, calling the events “tragic and unacceptable,” citing that Sgt. Barry had not followed training or protocols for dealing with those with mental illness, neither using his Taser nor waiting for specialized officers trained to deal with such situation and that he was placed immediately on “modified duty without badge or gun.”

And that a number of investigations are underway, by both the Bronx district attorney and the NYPD’s Department of Investigation.

Also that, while NYC began Crisis Intervention Team training last year, it has only reached 4,400 of the 36,000 rank and file officers, not including Sgt. Barry.

There’ll be plenty of time to analyze what could have or should have been done to try and prevent Deborah’s tragic death…and we must do so quickly, but without turning this tragedy into yet another shamefulcall for more coercion that shows such a lack of understanding about all that really must be done to make our care and our lives so much better.

But what I really want you to see are Deborah’s terribly poignant words from that 6 page piece that I’ve attached to this posting, about her experience with mental illness and the response she has gotten from those she encountered.


Deborah was remembered by her friend Daniel, who told the Times that “she was a dear friend and a good

“Any chronic illness is a curse. Schizophrenia is no different—its only ‘saving grace’, if you will, is that as far as I know it’s not a fatal disease….

We’re treated with suspicion as liars who can’t be trusted to control ourselves. We’re asked to accept less than or natural rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Often, our movements are curtailed by well-meaning care givers who believe that only by ‘keeping a close eye’ on their afflicted charges can they be kept safe. We’re rarely employed in the mainstream (unless, like me, we hide our affliction(s)), and end up living on the periphery of life , accepting the dictates of someone who should know better who controls or tries to control where we go, who we see, what we spend, what we do.

All of the above is a prescription for misery.

I’ve lost several jobs because of stigma—jobs I was succeeding at. I’ve gotten to the point where I now tell any employer who asks that I am “semi-retired” to avoid explaining, endlessly, that I have schizophrenia and that no, I won’t go postal and yes, I can handle more than normal stress (es) and no, I am not taking Thorazine, and no, I won’t be getting bouts of depression that’ll make me miss work and that yes, I take a medication daily to control it and that no I don’t act crazy and no, I don’t require special handling, thank you very much.

So, now you have a pretty good idea of what it’s like living with this disease—flashbacks, depressions and stigma. It tends to break relationships that should last a lifetime, provides for a stupefying amount of isolation and, if allowed to, can significantly affect one’s self-esteem. In fact, if I were a weaker personality, this litany of negative experiences would have broken me.

I smile rarely, but I am surviving.

What have I done about this state of affairs? Well, it’s not all negativity. I have found a strong support system in my church home dealings. They know I suffer and still accept me. They provide the succor I am still not receiving from family and some old friends. They trust and support me, offer assistance financially and emotionally and bring me ever closer to a God who I know loves me. I’ve begun therapy with the wonderful Naomi—a mental health professional-- who listens, converses with and advises me and has me convinced that I am still a person of worth. She, hopefully, will notice and tell me if she observes the behavior(s) associated with this awful disease emerging and will perhaps become a friend.

person who had a great laugh.”

RIP Deborah Danner.

Maybe we can turn the terrible pain your words evoke and the courage and dignity you shared with us in life to redouble our efforts to help offer hope and help to our sisters and brothers across the City and nation.