Danner’s Death And The Great Divide

When NYPD Sgt. Hugh Barry arrived at Dorothy Danner’s door in response to a neighbor’s 911 call that she was acting “erratically,” whatever that means, he knew he was going to be dealing with a mentally ill woman. Danner was schizophrenic, and a regular for the cops.

On Tuesday, Ms. Danner, 66, was fatally shot by a police sergeant in her Bronx apartment in a confrontation that was condemned in swift and striking terms by Mayor Bill de Blasio and Police Commissioner James P. O’Neill.

Both the mayor and the commissioner said the officer had failed to follow the Police Department’s protocol for dealing with an emotionally disturbed person.

The mayor and PC were being disingenuous. There is a protocol in place, since the killing of Eleanor Bumpurs in 1984. They whip it out as needed, but it’s just there for show. Not only has the NYPD neglected to train its officers in dealing with the mentally ill,* but the protocol is nonsensical. The cops who respond to find a mentally ill person are to wait, call Emergency Services, and let them respond.

That’s nuts, of course. If every time a cop encountered someone who was mentally ill, they shut everything down and called in ESU, they would be there for days, then weeks, then months and years. The logistics don’t work, as there are too many mentally ill people and not enough ESU cops. And then, there’s the detail that ESU are the most militarized, armed-to-the-teeth cops around. They’re not exactly the cuddly cops that make the mentally ill feel safe and secure.

And Sgt. Barry handled Danner pretty well, at first.

The confrontation that left Ms. Danner dead began with a 911 call at 6:05 p.m. on Tuesday from a neighbor, who reported that Ms. Danner was acting erratically. It was not the first time the police had been summoned to the building at 630 Pugsley Avenue to deal with her, and initially it appeared that the episode inside her seventh-floor apartment would end peacefully.

Sergeant Barry persuaded her to put down a pair of scissors she was holding in her bedroom, according to initial police accounts.

Problem solved? Well, not when it comes to someone who’s mentally ill, because even after they’ve been calmed down, they’re still mentally ill and do something crazy again.

But then, according to those same accounts, Ms. Danner picked up a baseball bat and tried to swing at Sergeant Barry. He fired twice, fatally wounding her, the police said. Several other officers were at the scene, but none of them, except Sergeant Barry, were in the bedroom.

This is where the conflict comes into play, where the mayor and police commissioner immediately condemned Sgt. Barry. He could have backed away from the crazy lady with the bat. He could have called ESU. He could have used his Taser instead of his Glock. He could have shot to injure rather than kill.** But instead, he killed her.

And that is why we’re talking about this encounter with a mentally ill woman, because the thousands of others didn’t end in death. No one asks the mayor or police commissioner whether a cop violated policy when everyone walks away from an encounter. No cop gets condemned for calming someone down.

As Peter Moskos points out, why criticize Barry for doing what he’s trained to do?

Two days ago in the Bronx, an NYPD sergeant shot and killed Deborah Danner, a 66-year-old with schizophrenia armed with a baseball bat. Deborah Danner’s death is a tragedy. It is a failure of the system. But almost immediately, the officer who shot was stripped of his badge and gun and denounced by the mayor and police commissioner. DeBlasio — who according to the Times, “struggled to answer basic questions about the shooting” — felt he knew enough to throw the cop under the bus:

The shooting of Deborah Danner was tragic, and it is unacceptable. It should never have happened. It is quite clear our officers are supposed to use deadly force only when faced with a dire situation. And it’s very hard for any of us to see that that standard was met here.

Really? At NYPD target practice, there’s a simple shoot/don’t-shoot scenario.

It’s the Number Two scenario, guy with a bat. It’s a trained reaction. Shawn King, who has probably studied and researched this situation, explains why this is so very wrong on every level:

A woman.

An elderly woman.

A mentally ill elderly woman.

A mentally ill elderly woman with a baseball bat.

A mentally ill elderly woman with a baseball bat having a breakdown.

A mentally ill elderly woman with a baseball bat having a breakdown should be taken to the hospital for a medical intervention and treated with care and compassion.

This is common sense.

Common sense, the great equalizer for people incapable of rational thought, may well solve this problem for King, but won’t save the life of the next Deborah Danner. King pounds on de Blasio’s condemnation, that Sgt. Barry “broke” policy, even though this was a lawful shoot.

King tries his best at appearing rational:

Nothing about this shooting was “good” and while many of us are glad to see your verbal contrition, you must forgive me for my skepticism. What just happened to Deborah Danner should’ve never happened. Yes, I know our city is big. Yes, I know our police make thousands and thousands calls without this happening, but never, not once, should an officer of the law shoot and kill a 66-year-old woman having a mental health emergency.

It’s unthinkable and unacceptable.

That it should not happen is certainly true, but calling it “unthinkable and unacceptable” is about as useful as falling back on the palliative of the clueless, “common sense.”

What none of this offers is a realistic means to address the otherwise ignored reality that a 66-year-old schizophrenic woman, who was a regular to the precinct, was left to her own devices. The cops didn’t search her out, but responded to a neighbor’s complaint.

King initially seems to fall back on the obvious, simplistic solution, that if policy had been followed, it would have changed the outcome. But he only does so to blame the cop. Moskos makes the obvious point:

But one thing about these events is they can change police culture quite quickly. ESU is now going to have a lot more work, for better or for worse. But wouldn’t be ironic if ESU responded to every call, especially in light of demands to de-militarize the police? And then what happens when ESU kills somebody? Then we blame ESU?

Then who do we call? The really issue is that police shouldn’t be responding to this type of call at all.

Years ago, we dismantled the mental health system because it was a disgraceful nightmare, treating the mentally ill like animals. The solution was to cut them loose, put them on the street, respect their right to be free. And mentally ill. Often homeless, and occasionally violent and dangerous, to themselves and others.

Sgt. Barry invoked the First Rule of Policing. He could have made different choices that would have meant everyone would survive the encounter. The law doesn’t compel him to do so. The policy he violated is a joke. He was immediately thrown under the bus for reacting exactly as he was trained to react. And Deborah Danner was afforded her freedom to be mentally ill.

Even King grasps that the police were the wrong people to respond, though his solution is typically silly:

What New York has, and what most cities have right now, is the equivalent of sending a plumber to a child’s birthday party for entertainment. Plumbers provide a great service, but they aren’t who kids want to be entertained by. Police, with guns drawn, aren’t what a mental health emergency needs. It’s the exact opposite of what those situations need. We need collaborative teams with mental health and medical professionals who skillfully work to de-escalate and ultimately treat mental health emergencies like the medical situations they truly are.

No, there will be no prancing unicorns of “collaborative teams” of mental health professionals roaming cities to “skillfully” soothe the tens of thousands of encounters with the mentally ill.

If we don’t want cops killing old mentally-ill people, then we need an alternative that might be slightly realistic. But we’re unlikely to find one because it requires hard, unpleasant choices that recognize that a hallmark of the mentally ill is that they cannot be left to their own devices, their freedom, because they’re mentally ill. So they’re left to the cops to manage, and this is how it ends.

*They’ve trained about 4,400 out of 36,000 cops thus far. It’s only been 32 years since Bumpurs was killed.

**As I’m reminded in the comments, I should be clear that police are trained to shoot at center mass until they have incapacitated their target. In other words, shoot to kill, not wound. While the romantic notion of a cowboy shooting the gun out of some outlaw’s hand is stuck in our head, this is not reality. If cops are lawfully authorized to use deadly force, they are trained to use it to kill.

14 thoughts on “Danner’s Death And The Great Divide

  1. Patrick Maupin

    When people start seriously questioning the strategy of steadfastly maintaining that there are no bad shoots, it’s time to drop back to the time-worn strategy of throwing the plebs under the bus.

    1. SHG Post author

      There’s no one involved in Danner’s death who should be proud of themselves, the public included. We’re quibbling over who to blame, while doing nothing to face up to the bullshit world we’ve created that guarantees this will happen again.

  2. losingtrader

    I didn’t want to be the first commenter, but I’m about to catch a flight, so figured I might as well point out you’ve been on a “unicorns and rainbows” tear lately. Your home address has the word “cave” in it.

    Perhaps someone should call the local police to come to your cave and explain unicorns can be dangerous.
    I know. I’ve been gored by several at once. The rainbows were just the effects of the pain meds.

    1. SHG Post author

      I’m a practical guy. If there’s a problem, then face up to the often hard and unpleasant choices needed to fix it. That’s not doable when we’re wrapped up in irreconcilable values (my unicorns on rainbows metaphor) that we want to believe to be true but are utter fantasy. We deal with reality one way or another, no matter what sort of bullshit we tell each other or pretend to be real.

  3. JMK


    I’ve never left a comment on your site before because I respect your position that laymen usually get it wrong since we don’t understand the law (along with the fact that I really have no desire to have your acerbic wit aimed in my direction).

    That said, you’ve introduced a downright dangerous idea here by suggesting that “shoot to wound” is ever a reasonable course of action. Police are not trained to shoot to kill (nor is (with very few exceptions) anyone else). People using deadly force are trained to shoot at the center of the target’s mass. Not only does it contain the majority of systems that will cause whatever you’re shooting at to stop doing whatever it was that led you to start shooting in the first place, but (more importantly) it also improves the probability of actually hitting your target, as opposed to hitting nothing at all (or worse, hitting something you didn’t intend to, like another human being).

    “Shooting to wound” is shooting to miss, plain and simple, and no one should ever be trained to do so. Tasing? Yeah, that makes sense, as does disabling the threat in some other way (or, dare i say it, backing off).

    In this case, you’re the ignorant layman, and I would respectfully suggest you correct your error here.

    By the way, since I AM commenting for once, I just wanted to thank you for the glimpse you provide into the criminal justice world here, and the great work you and your colleagues do with fault lines. I realize you don’t place much store in the adulation of random people from the Internet, but I truly value the insight you provide into that world.

    1. SHG Post author

      I’m not suggesting shoot to wound at all. I’m suggesting that its one of the “solutions” people will see, despite the fact that it’s untenable, as everybody involved with law (or guns) is already well aware. You’re right, however, that I should have made that clear for anyone unfamiliar, but now you’ve done it so I don’t have to.

      That said, the fact that police are trained to shoot until their target is incapacitated (not necessarily to kill, mind you) raises the question of why. The best answer is that shooting to wound is too difficult and often inadequate solution. If they are lawfully entitled to use deadly force, then they should make it deadly.

      On the other hand, in the rare instance where death isn’t necessary, it’s a shame they can’t shoot to wound. The rationale for shoot to kill when the exercise of discretion informs the cop that it’s not necessary under the circumstances isn’t very strong. Then again, shoot to kill is for the protection of the cop at the expense of the target, so rather than risk a cop’s life by asking him to exercise skill and discretion that may go awry, it’s safer and easier to just kill.

      (That wasn’t so bad, was it?)

      1. REvers

        And there’s that old saying, “Dead men tell no tales.” Once the shootee starts assuming room temperature there is only one version of what happened.

        Unless there is video, but the cops always tell us that video doesn’t tell the whole story.

          1. REvers

            I’m shocked to hear that.

            Ok, no, I’m not shocked. My local gendarmerie isn’t terribly thrilled with the idea, either. Video ensures that there are two sides to every story, after all.

            As a side note that has little to nothing to do with the original subject (or maybe it does at some level), I got a prosecutor to dismiss one yesterday because the video didn’t match the police report. Oddly enough, the report left out the “Hey, you, stop. I need to search you,” that started off the encounter, as well as the fact that the “consent” to go through his pockets was obtained while the po-po had my client’s arms pinned behind his back. I’m guessing things are probably worse than that with NYPD.

      2. JAF

        My non LEO rational brain can’t seem to wrap itself around the actions taken given the myriad of choices this cop had:
        1: shoot and kill
        2: taser the person
        3: physically restrain 66 year old women
        4: back out of bedroom, close the door and reassess the situation

        Maybe there is some nuance not mentioned in the story, but I think your typical rational man on the street would overwhelmingly choose option 3 or 4.

        I would be curious to know if any readers have ever received any training/indoctrination powerful enough to shut down their rational common sense mind, I know I haven’t.

        1. SHG Post author

          I was tempted to delete your final sentence, there being so much wrong with it. Aside from you not asking “any readers” what they think of your question on my blawg, and “rational common sense,” a contradiction in terms, this isn’t a question for a rational man on the street. Training is designed to be a mindless reaction to circumstance. In retrospect, it seems all wrong, but its point is to create automatic responses that require no thinking because the time it takes to think could end up with a dead cop.

          I wouldn’t be that way. You wouldn’t. Most of us wouldn’t. But that’s because we’re not cops. And cops might well say, yeah, we’re trained, but we’re not so trained as to preclude us from realizing this wasn’t that life or death situation we were trained for, and we could, safely take a moment before acting.

          1. JAF

            You’re last sentence got me thinking about why a rational person would not safely take a moment to reassess the situation. I know I would be thinking about the consequences of my decision before acting and therefore would have taken the least harmful non lethal options. Maybe that is the part of the training us laymen don’t understand; they are being trained to not worry about consequences, it’s the only thing that makes sense to me.

            Sorry about the contradictory phrase earlier.

            1. Bruce Coulson

              Police are trained to ‘take control’ of a situation. Backing off in the face of an armed person isn’t ‘taking control’; it’s allowing the other person to control the encounter. Okay, so this wasn’t a situation that required immediate and constant control, but you’re asking an officer to actually think during a encounter?

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