The NYPD executed Deborah Danner

October 26, 2016

New York's mayor and police chief broke the "blue wall of silence" to criticize the cop who shot a 66-year-old woman, but Julian Guerrero asks if justice will be done.

DEBORAH DANNER, a 66-year-old woman who struggled for decades with schizophrenia, was shot dead by police in her Bronx home, the victim of a police department and a health care system that puts those with mental health issues last.

On October 18, a neighbor called 911 about loud noises coming from Danner's apartment and expressed concern for her well-being. This wasn't the first time the police had been called to her residence.

When the NYPD came upon Danner in her apartment, they say she was naked and "acting irrationally." Police persuaded her to set down a pair of scissors she was holding, but then, according to the police account, she allegedly reached for a bat and tried to hit one of the officers, Sgt. Hugh Barry.

Rather than reaching for his stun gun or retreating from the apartment until mental health emergency personnel arrived at the scene, Barry, who has been sued twice before for police brutality, fired two shots into Danner's torso. Danner died from her wounds at the hospital.

Deborah Danner
Deborah Danner (Innocence Project)

Ed Mullins, president of the NYPD's Sergeants Benevolent Association, justified Danner's deadly shooting, telling the press, "Everyone agrees that this was a good shooting."

But in a departure from elected officials around the country who have stood by police after similar shootings, Mayor Bill de Blasio, along with newly appointed Police Commissioner James O'Neill, placed blame on Barry for not following police protocol.

At a press conference the day after Danner was killed, de Blasio apologized for her death and said the system had failed her. "The shooting of Deborah Danner is tragic, and it is unacceptable," the mayor told reporters. "It should never have happened. It's as simple as that. It should never have happened."

Barry was stripped of his badge, gun and put on modified duty pending an investigation.

DANNER HERSELF wrote about the woefully ineffectiveness of the current system in addressing the concerns of the mentally ill. In an essay written in 2012 about living with schizophrenia, she recounts how the mental health disease pushed her away from her family, employment, and health care workers and doctors who sought to help her.

Danner's essay gives some insight into her life and aspirations. She was diagnosed in her late 20s when she was working as a management information systems and information technology professional--pride in her career made her life after being diagnosed all the more difficult.

She underscored this point by including the Merriam-Webster definition of the word "stigma" in her essay:

a archaic: a scar left by a hot iron: BRAND b: a mark of shame or discredit: STAIN c: an identifying mark or characteristic; specifically: a specific diagnostic sign of a disease.

Rather than feeling supported, Danner felt isolated and stigmatized, as everybody looked at her with suspicion believing that she was incapable of self-control. She wrote:

We're asked to accept less than our natural rights to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. Often, our movements are curtailed by well-meaning caregivers 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 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.

Citing the case of Eleanor Bumpurs, a New York City woman with mental health issues who was shot and killed by the NYPD in 1984, Danner called for changes she would like to see in how the public, and specifically the police, interact with people with mental health conditions.

Danner reflected on the need for greater resources in society for the diagnosed and undiagnosed mentally ill, calling for new police protocols and advocating for the homeless and incarcerated mentally ill.

DESPITE HER isolation, Danner had support from her close family, especially from her mother who, from the moment Danner began to exhibit symptoms, struggled to provide the resources and services Danner needed until her death in 2006.

Danner's isolation was kept at bay for a while, as she spent time at a mental health community center, Fountain House, which provides classes, support and opportunities to socialize. She was very active and even taught an acting class for her peers.

It was around the time that Danner wrote her 2012 essay that she stopped being active at the Fountain House. "She would pop in erratically over the last five years," Fountain House Director Kenn Dudek said. "I don't know where she was getting her medical services. I did find out, after the fact, that she was in and out of psychiatric hospitals over the last five years."

While the reasons why Danner walked away from Fountain House may never be known, New York's lack of thoroughly integrated and well-funded mental health services set the stage for Danner and others like her to withdraw from society.

In fact, New York City is in a full-blown mental health crisis, with the closing of 13 hospitals over the past decade creating a situation where people who are in need of mental health services are being swept up into the city's criminal justice system.

Rikers Island, the city's notorious jail complex, holds up to 12,000 people in any given day, with some 40 percent of them diagnosed as mentally ill.

"People with mental illness become more and more entangled with the criminal justice system," Laura Usher of the National Alliance on Mental Illness told Newsweek, since "the mental health system is so broken that most people have nowhere to turn in a crisis. Police have become first-line responders."

EXECUTED BY a callous police officer and the city's neglect for its most impoverished and in-need residents, Danner's needless death leaves another scar on the communities she was a part of and advocated change for.

After the shooting, questions were raised about why Barry didn't use his stun gun instead of his pistol. Local officials like Public Advocate Letitia James and Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. called the shooting unacceptable, while dozens of New Yorkers rallied in Harlem to remember Danner and others killed in interactions with police.

Since then, the Sergeants Benevolent Association has repeated its claims that Barry was following police training and strongly criticized the mayor and police commissioner, claiming that they were using incident for political purposes.

Recent articles emphasized the semantic differences between de Blasio's claim that Danner's death was the result of a poor "individual" decision, while Commissioner O'Neill seems to imply that there is a systematic fault that lies with the NYPD.

Both the mayor and commissioner are calling for an internal investigation and talk a lot about the need for more training for all cops, but de Blasio's contradictory stances on police reform continue to reinforce the belief that cops will be protected by the city government whatever they do. This makes it hard to say that Danner and her neighbors will ever see justice.

Over the past year, de Blasio has worked hard to keep the NYPD's internal disciplinary procedures secret from the public despite a lawsuit by the Legal Aid Society to release these documents.

The mayor and City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito also successfully blocked the Right to Know Act, a police accountability bill that many NYPD critics say was too watered-down, from going forward to a vote in the city council.

The NYPD's record for internal discipline of abusive cops is dismal, and if this case is anything like the killing of Eleanor Bumpurs--where the cop who used a shotgun to murder her was acquitted of all charges in a bench trial that started two years after her death--justice will come long delayed, if it comes at all.

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