Authorities in New York were sharply critical Wednesday of a police sergeant who fatally shot a 66-year-old woman after responding to a call reporting an “emotionally disturbed person.”
Police said they were investigating the shooting that occurred in the Bronx apartment of Deborah Danner, who authorities said was trying to hit the officer with a baseball bat when she was shot. In blunt public statements on Wednesday, officials said Sgt. Hugh Barry did not follow his training and said they were seeking to determine why he fired his gun rather than his Taser.
“The shooting of Deborah Danner is tragic and it is unacceptable,” New York Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) said during a news conference Wednesday afternoon. “It should never have happened. It’s as simple as that. It should never have happened.”
New York Police Commissioner James O’Neill said earlier Wednesday that “we failed” and he wanted to know why.
“Every life to me is precious,” O’Neill said during a briefing. “I think that we’ve been in this business a very long time, we’ve established procedures and protocols for handling emotionally disturbed people. That’s to keep everybody safe, that’s to keep the cops safe, the community safe and the person that we’re dealing with safe.”
O’Neill said that while the department has protocols governing such calls, “it looks like some of those procedures weren’t followed.” He pledged that police and prosecutors would investigate the shooting to “figure out what went wrong.”
The comments by de Blasio and O’Neill on Wednesday, which came almost immediately after the incident, were unusually prompt and pointed criticisms of an officer’s actions. Officials across the country have been facing increasing pressure over the last two years to hold officers accountable after they use deadly force.
Police in New York have responded to more than 128,000 calls regarding people suffering emotional disturbances, said de Blasio, who was unaccompanied by police officials when he spoke and said he had discussed the incident with O’Neill.
“Our officers, in the overwhelming majority of instances, handled those instances very well, with tremendous skill, with tremendous sensitivity,” he said. “That’s why this tragedy is so shocking. … Something went horribly wrong here.”
Melissa Mark-Viverito, speaker of the New York City Council, echoed these comments and said she was “deeply troubled” by the shooting. “Deborah Danner should have been helped, not killed,” she said in a statement.
Ed Mullins, president of the Sergeants Benevolent Association, a union for active and retired New York police sergeants, chastised O’Neill for his comments on Wednesday.
O’Neill’s statements were “denying due process by supplanting public opinion and putting an expectation of results in the minds of the people who will ultimately investigate the case,” Mullins said in a statement. “It only served to exacerbate the effects of a tragic situation, and was most certainly motivated by nothing other than political expediency.”
Mullins said for the officer to “be immediately vilified based on innuendo and the social and political climate only compounds the tragedy” of the shooting.
According to a narrative released by the police department, officers responded to a neighbor’s 911 call shortly after after 6 p.m. Tuesday and headed to Danner’s seventh-floor apartment on Pugsley Avenue.
Danner was known to police after “several incidents” involving similar calls about her, Assistant Police Chief Larry W. Nikunen, commanding officer of Patrol Borough Bronx, said during a news conference Tuesday night. De Blasio said police knew she “suffered from mental illness.”
When Barry went inside Danner’s apartment at about 6:15 p.m., she was holding scissors, Nikunen said. The sergeant talked with Danner and persuaded her to put the scissors down, but she then picked up a baseball bat and tried to hit Barry, prompting him to fire two shots at her torso, Nikunen said.
Danner was taken to Jacobi Hospital and pronounced dead.
“The sergeant was armed with a Taser, it was not deployed, and the reason it was not deployed will be part of the investigation and review,” Nikunen said.
While Nikunen began reading his remarks, a voice in the crowd yelled out, “Black lives matter.”
O’Neill said that Barry had attended training in 2014 that focused on de-escalating situations. Barry has been placed on modified duty and stripped of his badge and gun, de Blasio said.
A spokeswoman for New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said that his office was “reviewing the incident to determine whether or not it falls within” his jurisdiction, created by an executive order last year, to investigate some deaths at the hands of police.
“We extend our deepest condolences to Ms. Danner’s family,” Amy Spitalnick, the spokeswoman, said in a statement.
“I was gutted” when I heard the news, said Charles Hargreaves, an attorney who had represented Danner in a case. When he met with her, Danner “was talking about the stigma of people who are mentally ill,” said Hargreaves, an attorney with the Mental Hygiene Legal Service, a state agency.
Hargreaves said Danner had sent him essays she had written about police officers who didn’t have proper training responding to mentally ill people.
Danner was among at least 772 people fatally shot by a police officer this year, according to a Washington Post database tracking such shootings.
About a quarter of these shootings involved people who were reported to be mentally ill or suffering an emotional crisis, The Post’s database shows, a similar share to what was found last year.
Experts say these kinds of shootings highlight an issue involving just how often police are called to respond to someone suffering from either a mental or emotional crisis and whether officers are properly trained to handle such calls.
In most cases last year involving people with mental illness fatally shot by officers, authorities were responding after a relative or bystander called because they were worried about the person’s erratic behavior.
Jay Ruderman, president of the Ruderman Family Foundation, which advocates for people with disabilities, said in a statement that the shooting “highlights the need for police to have better awareness of how to interact with people with disabilities in order to prevent more fatal tragedies.”
Just two days before the Bronx shooting, police in Texas fatally shot a woman whose husband had called 911 seeking a mental health officer and warning that his wife had picked up a gun.
Authorities said that Micah Dsheigh Jester, the Austin woman, pointed a weapon at officers saying, “Shoot me. Shoot me. Kill me,” and that she was shot as she kept approaching the police.
She fell to the sidewalk, still asking the officers to shoot her and not putting down her weapon, police said. They fired again and she was pronounced dead not long after. It later turned out her weapon was a replica BB gun, which can often appear real to police officers.
A shooting in El Cajon, Calif., last month also prompted anger after officers fatally shot Alfred Olango, whose sister had called authorities worried about his erratic behavior.
On Monday, a day before Danner was shot in New York, police in El Cajon said they arrested eight people who had gathered and were angry a memorial for Olango had been removed. Authorities said some officers had been assaulted, and police said one person had pulled out a handgun before being tackled by demonstrators.
This story, first published at 9:10 a.m., has been updated to include additional information throughout the day.