NYAPRS Note: Eight months ago, NYPD Sergeant Hugh Barry fatally shot a 66 year old Bronx woman with a longtime struggle with a self-described diagnosis of schizophrenia in her apartment. Finding that Sergeant Barry did not follow procedure and use his stun gun to subdue Ms. Danner and wait for a specialized Emergency Service Unit to arrive, he was suspended without pay and an investigation was launched. This week, he was charged with murder, an extremely rare occurrence when such acts occur on duty.
“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.” These are not my words but those of Deborah in an essay she wrote months before her death (see last year’s e news posting below).
In recent years, NYC Mayor De Blasio and the NYPD have taken steps to create Crisis Intervention Teams comprised of specially trained police officers who may work with mental health professionals in response to a call involving individuals in acute emotional distress. This is a critically important advance….and, sadly, so is a murder charge that sends the right message to police departments and officers that avoidable tragic fatal police encounters with people from our community will not be tolerated. RIP Deborah Danner.
New York City Police Sergeant Charged With Murder in Bronx Woman’s Death By Al Baker New York Times May 31, 2017
A New York City police sergeant who fatally shot a mentally ill woman in her Bronx apartment in October was charged on Wednesday with murder in the woman’s death.
The arrest of the sergeant, Hugh Barry, followed months of investigation into the encounter with the woman, Deborah Danner, 66. Her death echoed the fatal police shooting in 1984 of Eleanor Bumpurs, a woman with a history of mental illness.
Sergeant Barry, who had been on the police force eight years and was assigned to the 43rd Precinct, was charged with second-degree murder, first- and second-degree manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide, and was suspended without pay.
Police officers rarely face criminal charges in deaths that occur when they are on duty, and murder charges are even more rare.
Ms. Danner was killed on Oct. 18 after Sergeant Barry and other officers responded to 911 calls of a woman acting erratically at an apartment building in the Castle Hill neighborhood.
Within hours of her death, the sergeant was stripped of his badge and gun and placed on modified duty, although the police, in their initial account, said that Ms. Danner had tried to swing a wooden bat at him.
Mayor Bill de Blasio and the police commissioner, James P. O’Neill, said Sergeant Barry had not followed police protocol for dealing with people with mental illness. Specifically, he did not use his stun gun to try to subdue Ms. Danner, and he did not wait for a specialized Emergency Service Unit to arrive.
On Wednesday afternoon, Sergeant Barry, 31, appeared in court in the Bronx, dressed in a suit. Standing before Judge Robert A. Neary, Sergeant Barry kept his eyes forward as his lawyer, Andrew C. Quinn, entered a plea of not guilty on his behalf. Judge Neary set bail at $100,000, and Sergeant Barry was escorted from the courtroom.
After Ms. Danner’s death, the Bronx district attorney, Darcel D. Clark, asked the state to impanel a special grand jury to hear evidence in the case. But the state attorney general, who has the power to investigate police shootings of unarmed people, declined to pursue a formal inquiry, suggesting the preliminary evidence had confirmed that Ms. Danner was armed when she was killed.
Ms. Clark, a former judge and the wife of a city police detective, took over the investigation and sought a grand jury in December.
On Wednesday, Edward D. Mullins, the president of the Sergeants Benevolent Association, blasted the grand jury’s decision. After the sergeant was charged, the mayor said the death “was a tragedy felt deeply by our city.”
In a statement, Mr. Mullins said Commissioner O’Neill’s criticism, “before any investigation was even commenced,” had “undoubtedly tainted the grand jury pool and denied any semblance of due process” for the sergeant.
Over the last few years, several killings of unarmed people by the police have increased pressure on prosecutors to pursue criminal cases against officers. Charges have been filed in several prominent cases — including in the deaths of men in Baltimore; North Charleston, S.C.; and Tulsa, Okla. — but such cases are difficult.
In Baltimore, prosecutors dropped charges against three of the officers involved after failing to win convictions against three other officers charged in the case. In Tulsa, a jury acquitted the officer, and in North Charleston, the state trial of an officer on murder and manslaughter charges ended in a mistrial, though the officer, who had been fired, eventually pleaded guilty to a federal civil rights charge.
In Brooklyn, a police officer, Peter Liang, was charged in the fatal shooting of an unarmed man, Akai Gurley, in the stairwell of a public housing complex in Brooklyn. Mr. Liang was convicted last year of manslaughter but was sentenced to a term of probation, a decision that outraged Mr. Gurley’s family.
The encounter between Ms. Danner and the police lasted 15 to 20 minutes, in the close quarters of her seventh-floor apartment at 630 Pugsley Avenue, officials said.
It began with 911 calls from neighbors who had heard Ms. Danner being “loud and disruptive” in the hallway, Wanda Perez-Maldonado, an assistant district attorney, said in court. It was not the first time the police had been called to her home.
Four officers and two paramedics arrived around 6 p.m. and Sergeant Barry arrived minutes later. The encounter ended with Sergeant Barry firing twice, fatally wounding Ms. Danner, who was in her bedroom.
The sergeant could face life in prison if convicted of the most serious charge.
Initially, the police said that Sergeant Barry persuaded Ms. Danner to drop a pair of scissors, but that she picked up a bat and tried to swing at him. Only Sergeant Barry was in the bedroom with Ms. Danner.
Sergeant Barry testified before the grand jury last week, said Mr. Quinn, who declined to provide details.
In court, Mr. Quinn called the case an obvious instance of what is known under New York law as a “justification defense.” Under state law, officers can use deadly force when they reasonably believe deadly force is about to be used against them or someone else. Sergeant Barry can argue that he acted in self-defense, former prosecutors and defense lawyers said.
“If someone is coming at you with a bat, that is deadly physical force,” said Marvyn Kornberg, a Queens defense lawyer who has handled police cases.
At trial, the perception of the officer almost always becomes a critical issue. A jury must decide if Sergeant Barry had reason to believe his life was threatened in the moment he fired. The prosecution will have to show the killing was capricious and unjustified because the sergeant had alternatives to using deadly force, such as retreating or using a Taser.
In the case of Ms. Bumpurs, she was holding a kitchen knife when the police, summoned during eviction proceedings, stormed her Bronx apartment. Officer Stephen Sullivan shot her, first in the hand, then in the chest. The Bronx district attorney at the time charged Officer Sullivan with second-degree murder and criminally negligent homicide. He was tried and acquitted in 1987.
Ms. Danner was killed as the Police Department was moving to train rank-and-file patrol officers in the kind of de-escalation tactics practiced by officers in the Emergency Service Unit in their dealings with mentally ill people. Sergeant Barry had not undergone the training.
A relative of Ms. Danner, Wallace Cooke Jr., who retired from the Police Department in 1984 after 15 years as an officer, said he welcomed news of the arrest of Sergeant Barry.
“It’s about time that they be held accountable for their action,” Mr. Cooke, 74, said in a telephone interview on Wednesday.
Charles J. Hargreaves, a lawyer for the state’s Mental Hygiene Legal Services who represented Ms. Danner in a guardianship case a few years ago, said that the indictment gave him no joy.
He recalled an essay by Ms. Danner that recounted her struggle of decades with schizophrenia and her fears of dying in a confrontation with the police.
“I’ve always been of the mind that she was terrified at the time,” Mr. Hargreaves said. “I wasn’t there, but what was the emergency that they couldn’t have not gone into the apartment and waited for E.M.S. or someone else?”
On the Tragic Death of Deborah Danner
Harvey Rosenthal, NYAPRS October 21, 2016
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 shameful call 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.
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.