Dear District Attorney Darcel Clark,
You have been given the responsibility of deciding whether to file criminal charges against NYPD Sgt. Hugh Barry for fatally shooting Deborah Danner, a 66-year-old woman who was in the grip of a psychotic episode after suffering with mental illness for much of her life.
The decisions you will soon make in the most important case of your first year in office will define your legacy as a criminal justice leader in this city and beyond. You will not be able to please everyone, but that's not your job. Your job is to do what's right. Based on the evidence that is now known, you must file charges against Sgt. Barry.
Deborah Danner was dressed in a nightgown and alone in her Bronx home when she was killed. She deserved better than an officer who has been sued twice for excessive force drawing his gun and treating her like she was little more than a target at a shooting range.
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Almost five years ago, Danner wrote a gut-wrenching essay on the challenges of living with schizophrenia. She began with these painful words,: "Any chronic illness is a curse. Schizophrenia is no different — its (sic) only 'saving grace,’ if you will, is that as far as I know, it's not a fatal disease."
For Danner, severe mental illness did prove fatal when a police officer, vested with the power of life and death, recklessly disregarded common sense, decency and NYPD regulations after he was called to help an emotionally troubled woman who was a threat to no one but herself.
A neighbor called 911 because Danner was yelling incoherently amid a mental health crisis. Calling 911 is how you summon help for people who require emergency assistance. In Danner's case, relatives, neighbors and police were all well aware of her mental health challenges.
According to the NYPD, Barry talked Danner into dropping the scissors. At that point, his job was to contain Danner until emergency services cops, who are trained to subdue emotionally disturbed people and do so safely every day, arrived on the scene.
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Barry had recently been trained to use a Taser, rather than a gun, to disable a threatening person with an electrical shock. Still, he opened fire on her when, the NYPD says, Banner grabbed and swung a bat at him.
Because not a single officer in the NYPD has a body camera, we are not able to see this incident for ourselves. But we don't need to see it all unfold to see Barry's critical errors. Rather than wait for proper support, he recklessly escalated the situation, chose not to use a non-lethal weapon when he says he needed self-defense against a 66-year-old woman with a bat, and ended the encounter by using unnecessary fatal force.
I know you love the Bronx. Your parents served this city with dignity for decades. To me, you are the Bronx. You were raised in the Soundview Houses, went to elementary, middle, and high school right in the middle of the Bronx, and found your way back home after college.
You were a natural born leader at Boston College and Howard University, as a prosecutor and as a judge who was elevated to a highly respected appellate court.
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Your reputation in the courtroom has always been that you are firm, but fair. So, that's what we're asking of you today — please be firm and fair with Sgt. Hugh Barry. Historically, New York DA's have given police pass after pass on police brutality, but this cannot and should not be the case with you.
As the first woman to ever serve as a district attorney for the Bronx, and the first woman of color to ever serve as a district attorney in the entire state of New York, many of us were excited to see you elected. It was our hope and belief that in you we had someone who not only pledged to represent all of the Bronx, but that we also had someone who could honestly say they understand what it means to face down poverty, racism and sexism on every level of society. You are the district attorney tDeborah Danner needs.
Mayor de Blasio and NYPD Commissioner O'Neill have both said her shooting death was wrong, that it violated multiple policies, and that it should not have happened. I agree with them. It is up to them, based on that determination, to fire Barry, and to put in place the safeguards and systems to ensure what happened to Danner never happens again in this city. That's their burden.
To be clear, shooting and killing a 66-year-old woman in a mental health crisis — barring her having a loaded gun or bomb, particularly if she is isolated in the bedroom of her own home — is not reasonable, moral or ethical.
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District Attorney Clark, you are married to an NYPD detective. He is a son of the Bronx. I have heard some people say they think that means you will "go easy" on Barry. I am choosing to believe the exact opposite. I am choosing to believe that because the NYPD is not just an abstract idea to you, but lives in your very home, that you may be particularly burdened to hold violent cops accountable so they do not soil the reputation of the entire force. That's what's at stake here.
Day after day after day, people on both sides of the political aisle are fully willing to admit police departments have a "few bad apples," but then do next to nothing to hold those officers accountable for their worst actions. Do not continue this trend with Barry. While I seriously doubt he entered Danner's home with the intent of killing her that night, and accept what he have here is not first-degree murder, it appears to be a classic case of either manslaughter or negligent homicide.
Barry could and should have considered using a Taser that evening. A physical takedown and restraint of Danner was also a very viable option. She did not possess a gun. It was abundantly clear to Barry that she was not a bodybuilder, but an aging, elderly woman. She was contained in a closed-in space. Shutting the door and waiting until a tactical team arrived would've been better than stepping into her space and killing her.
Please, present this case to a grand jury. If the evidence holds firm, there is little doubt the panel will indict. Barry will have the opportunity, if he chooses, to tell his story. Likely he will say Danner swung the bat and that he felt like he was in danger. As questionable as that is, the critical point is that Barry chose to provoke a woman who was not in touch with reality, failed to wait for proper support and drew his gun rather than a Taser.
The grand jury needs only probable cause to believe a crime has been committed to return an indictment. In this case, there is far more than probable cause.Send a Letter to the Editor