An NYPD officer who killed a mentally ill woman in her Bronx apartment on Tuesday was sued twice for excessive force before Tuesday’s fatal encounter.
Around 6 p.m. Tuesday night, Sgt. Hugh Barry and an unnamed officer responded to reports of Deborah Danner acting “in an irrational manner” in a the hallway of her apartment building. An NYPD spokesperson told The Daily Beast neighbors had made “multiple 911 calls” about her behaviour on previous date.
This latest call involved a pair of scissors, which Danner was allegedly wielding while acting erratically in the hall. When police arrived, Danner had returned to her apartment, still clutching the scissors. An officer persuaded her to put them down. Then, according to police, the scene grew chaotic. Danner allegedly picked up a baseball bat and approached Barry. Instead of using his taser, as police protocol suggests, Barry shot Danner in the chest twice, killing her.
“What is clear in this one instance, we failed. I want to know why it happened,” Police Commissioner James O’Neill said during a Wednesday press conference. “That’s not how it’s supposed to go. It’s not how we train, our first obligation is to preserve life, not to take a life when it can be avoided. We need to know why.”
The NYPD’s top brass is now investigating why Barry resorted to lethal force, but his service history suggests trigger-happy tendencies.
In 2012, Barry was allegedly part of a violent arrest on 25-year-old Gregory Peters. According to a 2012 lawsuit, Peters was lawfully outside a midtown Manhattan building when officers pepper sprayed him, and forced him to the ground, where they punched and kicked him.
Barry was the only officer named in the case, which also accuses him of booking Peters on false charges “to cover up the above mentioned acts of brutality and abuse of authority.”
City attorneys settled the 2012 case for an undisclosed sum without admitting fault.
In 2014, Barry was involved in a brutal confrontation outside a Manhattan concert venue. Concertgoer Gabriel Diaz had been leaving the building when he appeared to argue with an NYPD officer doing crowd control.
A video provided by Diaz’s attorney showed the situation growing violent as a different officer began beating Diaz with his fists and baton. As Diaz was pinned against a squad car, more officers joined the fray. Barry was among them, Diaz’s attorney Kenneth Montgomery told The Daily Beast.
“A police officer, believed to be Police Officer Hugh Barry, and Police Officers ‘John Doe’ punched and kicked Gabriel Diaz and beat him with batons even after Gabriel Diaz was subdued,” Montgomery testified in a 2015 lawsuit against Barry and the other involved officers. Diaz was hospitalized for trauma after the incident.
Diaz’s 2015 case was dismissed, leaving Barry on the force.
On Wednesday, police announced that Barry had been placed on a modified assignment, stripped of his gun and badge while the department investigates Danner’s death.
“We can do better,” O’Neill promised.
Mayor Bill de Blasio said Barry should have waited for a trained Emergency Services Unit.
“From everything we know so far there was time to wait for ESU,” de Blasio told reporters on Wednesday. “There was an opportunity to slow things down here.”
But activists say an apology isn’t enough. They want the NYPD to start learning from its growing series of fatal encounters with the mentally ill.
“Even within the NYPD there are officers trained to handle emotionally disturbed people,” activist Keegan Stephan told The Daily Beast. “I know that from the case of Shereese Francis, who was a mentally woman killed when four [officers] piled on top of her and asphyxiated her chest the same way Eric Garner was killed. In that case, it came out that the police should have waited outside the building, since no one was in imminent danger, and called for the unit trained to handle emotionally disturbed people.”
Police protocols recommend officers not enter the home of a emotionally disturbed person, DNAinfo reports. If officers do enter the person’s home, protocol recommends they handcuff the person. It is unclear why police did not follow this step after Danner discarded the scissors. Even if the person grows violent while unrestrained, police are still asked to use tasers or other non-lethal weapons before using their guns.
But for decades, police have gone for their guns when dealing with the mentally ill. On Tuesday, Stephan and other activists were quick to draw parallels between Danner’s slaying and another Bronx death that has haunted the borough.
Like Danner, Eleanor Bumpurs was African American, 66, and living with mental illness when the NYPD came knocking on her Bronx apartment door on Oct. 29, 1984. Cops had come to evict Bumpers after a city psychiatrist had ruled her “psychotic” and unable to pay rent. When police drilled the lock of Bumpers’s door, they found her naked and allegedly brandishing a knife. Like Barry, one of the responding officers fired two shots, killing her.
Bumpers’s killing prompted mass outrage, and inspired police reforms, including new guidelines on interactions with the mentally ill. The supposed reforms didn’t help Danner.
“I think it’s really devastating that we’re seeing the NYPD doing the same things they did 33 years ago when the city and the police claim they’ve come so far,” Stephan said. “It really doesn’t seem like they have at all.”