Let me tell you about a woman.
An elderly woman.
A mentally ill elderly woman.
A mentally ill elderly woman who was home alone, in her bedroom, naked, in the middle of a severe mental health crisis.
Her name is Deborah Danner – a beautifully complicated soul, a project manager and longtime IT worker in New York City, who loved life through the pain and struggles of a 30 year battle with mental illness.
One week ago today, she was shot and killed in the bedroom of her own home by NYPD Sgt. Hugh Barry – who claims that he feared for his life so much that he had no choice but to shoot and kill her. In a 6 page personal narrative that Danner wrote in 2012 about living with schizophrenia, she said that the only saving grace with the disease was that it was “not fatal,” but for her, clearly it was.
Did she have a gun? No. A knife? No? A bomb or dangerous chemicals? No.
Officer Hugh Barry, with his gun out, cornering a naked elderly woman in the bedroom of her own home, claims that Deborah Danner had a baseball bat. Of course she did. She was likely terrified of the armed stranger in her bedroom.
If I, Shaun King, saw a 66 year old woman having a mental health crisis and she picked up a bat, I would not shoot and kill her. I’m a gun owner. I wouldn’t shoot her in the leg. I damn sure wouldn’t shoot her repeatedly until she died.
But that’s exactly what NYPD Officer Hugh Barry, who has an ugly history of excessive force, did.
Deborah Danner’s neighbors knew she struggled with mental illness. The police had visited her home on many prior calls. She was only a danger to herself.
That an officer shot and killed her is absolutely preposterous. While I’m encouraged that NYPD Commissioner James O’Neil and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio have each said that this shooting should not have happened – we’ve heard tough talk from city leaders here before. When Officer Daniel Pantaleo used a banned chokedhold to kill Eric Garner, an unarmed, non-violent man, we heard tough talk, but Pantaleo is an NYPD officer to this very day. Not only did he avoid jail, he didn’t even lose his job.
Eric Garner’s family, who love New York and call it home, have the daily burden of wondering if they will somehow bump into the officer who choked their loved one to death because this city refuses to hold him accountable.
Officer Hugh Barry was armed with a Taser, but didn’t use it. We’ve all seen this before.
Any available option for Officer Barry would’ve been better than the decision he made on Tuesday evening with Deborah Danner. Although a Taser itself is dangerous, it’s highly likely that Deborah Danner would be alive today if Officer Barry had actually used it. Did he have pepper spray? Did he use it? Was Officer Barry genuinely so afraid of this 66 year old woman that he thought his only way out of that scenario was shooting and killing her? If so, he shouldn’t be a cop.
Are officers not trained in hand to hand combat? Has he not been trained on takedown and restraint methods? How hard and fast did he believe this woman could swing the bat such that he genuinely believed killing her was his only option? Did he wait for backup? Could he have simply stepped back and moved away from Deborah Danner instead of stepping into her space during such an episode? She was naked, and home alone in her bedroom.
The bottom line is this – Officer Barry was abundantly clear of what he was up against.
He didn’t think the baseball bat was an assault rifle.
He didn’t think her cell phone was a gun.
He didn’t think she was a bodybuilder who could overpower him.
He shot and killed Deborah Danner because that’s what police have been taught they should do if a ghost says “boo.” That our laws basically allow police to act on the perceived possibility of a threat is fundamentally wrong. In the history of America, how many police officers have been mortally wounded by 66 year old mentally ill women with baseball bats? My guess is zero.
In 2015, at least 1,207 people were killed by police in this country and not a single officer was convicted the entire year. Zero. Everything about that is wrong. It defies all logic and reason for those numbers to be real. Even if just 1% of those shootings were fundamentally wrong, a dozen officers would’ve been held accountable, but they weren’t.
So, of course Sgt. Barry thought he could get away with this shooting. What in the world would make him think otherwise? At a time where police are literally getting away with murder, it makes perfect sense that Officer Barry assumed he could do what he did.
And I’ll close with this very simple thought – our country desperately needs change. And for the sake of our mothers, grandmothers, sisters, aunts, and friends, it can’t come soon enough.