Police Sergeant Acquitted in Killing of Mentally Ill Woman

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The sergeant’s lawyer, Andrew C. Quinn, however, sought to show how the department’s training set few hard-and-fast rules, often leaving decision-making to experienced field supervisors, such as Sergeant Barry, a nine-year veteran, who Mr. Quinn noted had successfully handled a multitude of emergency calls involving the emotionally disturbed.

Sergeant Barry fatally shot Ms. Danner at about 6:30 p.m. on Oct. 18, 2016, in the bedroom of her seventh-floor apartment at 630 Pugsley Avenue in the Bronx. From the start, he maintained he had acted in self-defense. He said Ms. Danner had refused an order to drop a baseball bat and then had begun to swing it at his head.

The police had been called to the apartment by a building security guard because Ms. Danner, a paranoid schizophrenic with a history of hospitalizations, had been ranting in a hallway and tearing posters off the wall.

It was the third time in two years the police had been called in to help emergency medical technicians take Ms. Danner to a hospital. The previous two times the police had had to break down her door to extricate her.

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Deborah Danner in her Facebook profile photo.

Though the police have wide leeway under state law to use lethal force to protect their lives, Ms. Danner’s death came amid a national debate over police shootings and prompted protests in New York led by elected officials and others. For many, it echoed the 1984 death of Eleanor Bumpurs, another mentally ill woman killed by the police in her Bronx apartment.

The shooting of Ms. Danner drew swift condemnations from Mayor Bill de Blasio and James P. O’Neill, the police commissioner, who said Sergeant Barry had failed to follow police protocols.

The Bronx district attorney’s office persuaded a grand jury to indict Sergeant Barry on charges of murder and the lesser offenses of manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide.

The trial, which began on Jan. 30, focused attention on police procedures for handling the mentally ill. Prosecutors argued that Sergeant Barry had ignored his training and had rushed to subdue Ms. Danner, forcing the confrontation that led to her death. He had only spent five minutes at the apartment when he fired his weapon.

But Mr. Quinn, the sergeant’s lawyer, argued that whatever mistakes he might have made in the minutes leading up to the shooting, he had an absolute right to defend himself the minute Ms. Danner decided to swing the bat at him.

The five other police officers and two emergency medical technicians who were present gave conflicting testimony about what happened.

Sergeant Barry testified in his own defense. He said he arrived at the apartment at about 6:22 p.m. and learned from one of the officers that Ms. Danner was in her bedroom with a pair of scissors and refusing to come out. He said he started talking to the distraught woman, coaxing her to speak to the medics.

After a few minutes, he said, Ms. Danner slammed the scissors down on a nightstand and came just outside her bedroom door.

Sergeant Barry said he soon decided Ms. Danner would not come any farther and made a decision to grab her before she could return to the bedroom and rearm. He signaled with his head to the other officers and rushed her.

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Sergeant Barry’s lawyer, Andrew Quinn, showed the judge how the sergeant said Ms. Danner was holding the bat.

Credit
Pool photo by Richard Harbus

But Ms. Danner moved too quickly for him. As he followed her into her bedroom, she jumped on the bed and pulled a baseball bat from the bedclothes. He ordered her to drop it. She stood up quickly in a right-handed batter’s stance and moved her front left foot toward him to start a swing. He fired twice into her torso.

“I just see the bat swinging and that’s when I fired,” he said.

Sergeant Barry acknowledged that Ms. Danner never completed the swing. He also said he could not back up because the other five officers were crowded close behind him.

Only one of the other officers, Camilo Rosario, had a clear view of the shooting. He was standing next to Sergeant Barry and a half step behind. He said the two bullets hit Ms. Danner before she swung the bat, though he added on cross-examination that he believed she was about to swing when Sergeant Barry fired.

Sergeant Barry conceded that he had not followed the department’s guidelines for dealing with the mentally ill. Since the killing of Ms. Bumpurs, officers have been trained to isolate and contain emotionally disturbed people, taking time and continuing to talk to them in an effort to persuade them to comply.

Patrol sergeants are also trained to call officers from the Emergency Service Unit, if necessary, because they have special equipment and training.

Sergeant Barry, however, never called for help. He said he decided he had to act quickly to subdue Ms. Danner before she picked up the scissors again, and he was unaware she had a baseball bat.

His account differed in many small but significant ways from the accounts of the other officers and two emergency medical technicians. Officer Rosario, for instance, recalled that it was he who persuaded Ms. Danner to put down her scissors and come to the door of her bedroom.

And one of the EMTs, Brittney Mullings, testified that Sergeant Barry never spoke to Ms. Danner. She said she was speaking to Ms. Danner when Sergeant Barry advanced toward her.

Every day of the trial, members of the Sergeants Benevolent Association union sat in the front row in a show of support. Several said they thought the prosecution was politically motivated.

Members of Ms. Danner’s Episcopal church also filled the benches, sitting with Ms. Danner’s sister and a handful of Black Lives Matter activists.

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