Officer Faces Discipline 5 Years After Killing Mentally Ill Woman
Police officers attempting to coax a schizophrenic woman out of her bedroom in the Bronx seemed on the verge of succeeding when Sgt. Hugh Barry …
Police officers attempting to coax a schizophrenic woman out of her bedroom in the Bronx seemed on the verge of succeeding when Sgt. Hugh Barry made a grab for her.
The woman, Deborah Danner, evaded him, picked up a baseball bat and held it aloft before Sergeant Barry fatally shot her.
The killing of Ms. Danner, 66, on Oct. 18, 2016, led to a rare swift rebuke from both the mayor and police commissioner, as well as murder charges against Sergeant Barry, who was acquitted in 2018. But it has taken five years from the shooting for Sergeant Barry, 35, to be brought up on disciplinary charges that could end his career, with a hearing set to begin Monday — though the timing was thrown into question late Sunday when Sergeant Barry requested a postponement, citing what his lawyer described as “Covid issues.”
The delay offers a case study for proponents of taking responsibility for disciplining police officers away from the Police Department, an idea that gained momentum amid nationwide protests over aggressive police tactics.
The hearing also focuses attention on the struggle to shift from a police-first response to the city’s mental health crisis, which became a major campaign issue during the Democratic mayoral primary. Eric Adams, who won the primary and is likely to become the next mayor, has said he opposes removing the police from the equation entirely, because responding to such situations can be dangerous.
But anger over police involvement in the cases made Ms. Danner’s death a flash point amid recent racial-justice protests. Since 2015, most of the 18 people killed by city police during mental health emergencies were Black, like Ms. Danner, or Latino.
Sergeant Barry, who was put on modified duty after the shooting and suspended during the criminal case — and earned about $152,000 last year — now faces administrative charges of failing to supervise the situation properly and exercising bad tactical judgment.
He testified at his murder trial that he shot Ms. Danner in self-defense after she stepped toward him and swung the bat — an account that was contradicted by another officer who witnessed the shooting.
The delay in bringing administrative charges against Sergeant Barry shows how the Police Department’s disciplinary process can drag on for years even when top city officials believe they have compelling reasons for punishing an officer, though Mr. Adams has pledged to fire wrongdoers within 90 days of an offense.
Department prosecutors first filed charges against Sergeant Barry in 2016, but officials did not schedule a tribunal until this summer, in part to await results of his criminal trial and because he filed a lawsuit — since dismissed — alleging that the police commissioner at the time, James P. O’Neill, was prejudiced against him.
Sergeant Barry’s lawyer, Andrew Quinn, said his client did nothing wrong and is being targeted for political reasons by Mayor Bill de Blasio in the tribunal, which could result in Sergeant Barry’s dismissal from the force.
“We don’t anticipate a good outcome,” Mr. Quinn said, “not on the merits, but on the politics.”
City officials did not respond to a request for comment.
An administrative judge will ultimately render a verdict, but Police Commissioner Dermot F. Shea, who has not weighed in on the case publicly, has the final say over Sergeant Barry’s fate.
The hearing is expected to span three nonconsecutive weeks and might not conclude until after Mayor de Blasio, who fiercely criticized Sergeant Barry’s actions, leaves office next year. It will include testimony from other officers as well as Ms. Danner’s sister, Jennifer Danner, 72, who rode the elevator to her sister’s floor with Sergeant Barry and was in the hallway when he shot her. “I am hoping to get some justice for my sister’s death,” Jennifer Danner said in an interview. “I would like to see him fired.”
The department tribunal will examine the decisions Sergeant Barry made on the day he was called to Ms. Danner’s apartment on Pugsley Avenue in Castle Hill, after receiving reports that she was shouting and tearing down posters.
During a nearly 40-year struggle with schizophrenia, Ms. Danner had been hospitalized for mental illness 10 times. In moments of clarity she had grappled with her condition in her writing, calling it a “beast” in one essay and decrying the “all too frequent” deaths of people with mental illness at the hands of law enforcement.
On two occasions, Ms. Danner had received treatment after a specialized police squad known as the Emergency Service Unit had broken into her apartment. But it was Sergeant Barry, a patrol supervisor, and other officers who were not members of that unit who came to her in October 2016. When he arrived, Ms. Danner was sitting on a bed cutting paper with scissors.
She refused to leave the apartment, saying she wanted to talk to a paramedic. The officers encouraged her to put down the scissors and come out.
As she was complying, Sergeant Barry tried to grab her. But she was too fast, he later testified, and she returned to the bedroom, jumped on her bed and picked up the bat.
Sergeant Barry testified that she had swung it at him before he opened fire. But he was contradicted by the sole eyewitness, Officer Camilo Rosario, who said Ms. Danner had not taken a swing, though he believed she was about to.
After the shooting, Mayor de Blasio criticized Sergeant Barry, telling WNYC that he should have backed away, waited for backup or used his stun gun. The Sergeants Benevolent Association, which represents Sergeant Barry, defended him in a full-page ad in the city’s tabloid newspapers.
During Sergeant Barry’s criminal trial in 2018, prosecutors said he had rushed to subdue Ms. Danner despite police protocols that require a slow approach with people with serious mental illness. In his haste, he had failed to gather key information about Ms. Danner and her past interactions with the police, prosecutors said, adding that he should also have used nonlethal tactics or waited for Emergency Service.
Ricardo Aguirre, a retired department prosecutor and a lawyer who represented Ms. Danner’s sister in a $2 million wrongful death suit against the city, said Sergeant Barry should have brought a shield or other special equipment to avoid having to use lethal force.
Sergeant Barry’s attorney, Mr. Quinn, said his client handled Ms. Danner appropriately despite the outcome. “It’s up to the patrol sergeant to take control of a situation and try to resolve it,” Mr. Quinn said. “Sergeant Barry did resolve it, he thought, everybody thought, when he got her to put the scissors down and to step out of the room. What he was unaware of was that she had a second weapon.”
Police officials acknowledged Sergeant Barry had not received specialized crisis intervention training that teaches officers how to recognize and de-escalate encounters with people experiencing mental breakdowns. The department had been slow to implement the training, which it adopted under pressure in 2015 and had only given to about 4,700 officers — a fifth of the patrol force — before Ms. Danner’s death.
Since then, several other people in the throes of mental illness have been killed by the police, including a Brooklyn man wielding a pipe in 2018 and a Bronx fitness instructor holding a cooking knife in 2019. No criminal charges have been filed in those cases, although two officers are facing disciplinary charges over the death of the instructor, Kawaski Trawick.
The deaths led the city to expand mobile crisis teams that handle psychiatric calls that are deemed nonemergencies, reducing response times from an average of 17 hours to about two hours.
This June, the city began a pilot program in Harlem that sends paramedics and social workers to some mental health calls instead of the police. Early data suggests the program is more effective at getting people to accept medical assistance than the traditional police response. Police officers still respond to the vast majority of mental health calls in the city, like the one that brought Sergeant Barry to Ms. Danner, though most are resolved without deadly force.
Jennifer Danner said she views the improvements as a positive development but feels little consolation when thinking of her sister.
“This is great,” she said, “but it didn’t help Debbie.”