A police sergeant was charged with murder Wednesday in the shooting of a 66-year-old mentally ill woman wielding a baseball bat, a death the mayor called tragic and unacceptable. Sgt. Hugh Barry pleaded not guilty at an arraignment Wednesday to charges that also included manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide in Deborah Danner’s October death. He was released on bail.
Police were responding to a 911 call about an emotionally disturbed person when Barry, who has been with the New York Police Department for eight years, encountered Danner in her Bronx apartment. Danner had been diagnosed with schizophrenia. Officers had been called to her home several times before to take her to the hospital during psychiatric episodes and had been able to take her away safely, Mayor Bill de Blasio said at the time.
On Oct. 18, Barry persuaded Danner to drop a pair of scissors she had been holding, police said. But after she picked up a baseball bat and brandished it toward him, he shot her twice in the torso, Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark’s office said.
Danner was black. Barry is white. Assistant District Attorney Wanda Perez-Maldonado said Barry had disregarded his training on handling people with mental illness. He had a stun gun, but did not use it.
His lawyer, Andrew Quinn, said that the sergeant confronted a woman “armed with a deadly weapon, a bat.” Sgt. Ed Mullins, the head of the Sergeants Benevolent Association, said Barry “did not go to work intending to kill anyone.” Mullins called the murder charge “obscene.”
“Officers risk their lives going into these situations. It’s a split-second decision,” the union leader said, predicting Barry would be acquitted. But a relative of Danner’s said the indictment marked a start toward getting justice. Still, the family is watching to see how the case plays out in court, cousin Wallace Cooke Jr. said.
“If he’s guilty _ which he is _ of killing Debbie, he should serve time,” Cooke said, adding that he himself is a retired police officer. “It was totally unnecessary for him to shoot her.” Barry, 31, who had never fired his weapon before, has been suspended from the force while the criminal case plays out. He was suspended without pay for 30 days.
New York City police respond to tens of thousands of calls about emotionally disturbed people each year. Officers and commanders, including sergeants, have been gradually getting training on how to deal with mentally ill people that includes instruction in techniques to “de-escalate” a situation, rather than resort to force.
Danner’s shooting sparked protests and a rebuke from the mayor. “Our officers are supposed to use deadly force only when faced with a dire situation. It’s very hard to see that standard was met,” de Blasio said the day after the shooting. “Something went horribly wrong here.”
New York police Commissioner James O’Neill, meanwhile, said at the time that his department failed by not using means other than deadly force. Officials and police reform advocates who had condemned Danner’s killing commended Barry’s arrest, which followed a two-month grand jury investigation.
“We have full faith in the district attorney to lead a fair and thorough prosecution,” said de Blasio. He and the DA are Democrats. The head of Black Lives Matter of Greater New York, Hawk Newsome, praised the DA for prosecuting the sergeant “like any other citizen” accused of a crime. Civil rights activist the Rev. Al Sharpton called the arrest “a good step in a long walk toward justice.”
Danner’s death evoked memories of the 1984 police killing of another black Bronx woman, Eleanor Bumpurs, who was shot after waving a knife at officers while being evicted from her apartment. Danner had been ill since her college years, Cooke said. She had done some computer-related work at one point and was a book-lover and artist, often sketching the people around her, a former lawyer of hers has said.
In a 2012 essay, she agonized over the deaths of mentally ill people like her at the hands of police. “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,” she wrote in the essay, which she had given to her attorney.