Deborah J. Danner (1950-2016)

Deborah Danner
Deborah Danner
Fair use image

On October 18, 2016, Deborah Danner, a 66-year-old African American woman, was fatally shot in her Bronx apartment by Sergeant Hugh Barry of the New York Police Department. The shooting occurred after police arrived to investigate a neighbor’s reports of “erratic” behavior. Due to a history of mental illness, it was not uncommon for police to arrive at Danner’s doorstep. In 2012, Danner wrote that she had experienced more than ten hospitalizations during her life. Deborah Danner’s death spurred citywide protests and prompted Mayor Bill de Blasio to condemn Barry’s breach of proper protocol, calling the event “tragic and unacceptable.”

According to testimony from Officer Camilo Rosario, one of five officers present at the time of the shooting, police arrived at 630 Pugsley Avenue to find Ms. Danner sitting on her bed, holding a pair of scissors and threatening to fight police if they entered the room. After spending a few minutes attempting to persuade her to put down the implement, Sgt. Barry entered the room to take Danner into custody, at which point she reached for a nearby baseball bat and raised it to shoulder height. Barry pulled his gun and asked her to put the bat down, but when she made a step to close the four-to-five-foot gap between them, he shot her twice. Rosario’s account contradicts initial reports, which claim that Danner attempted to swing the bat at Barry before she was shot. Ms. Danner was subsequently rushed to Jacobi Hospital, where she died of her injuries.

Disciplinary action was immediately taken by the New York Police Department (NYPD). Within six hours, Sgt. Barry had been stripped of his gun and badge and placed on modified duty, then was eventually suspended without pay. In May 2017, he was charged with second-degree murder, first- and second-degree manslaughter, and criminally negligent homicide, but was acquitted on all counts by the State Supreme Court the following February. New York City also agreed to pay a $2 million settlement to Danner’s family after her sister and guardian, Jennifer, sued the city.

Before her death, Ms. Danner was an IT/ MIS professional who took pride in her intelligence and involved herself with her church. In 2014, she graduated with a BS in Computer Science from the New York Institute of Technology in Manhattan. Her 2012 essay Living with Schizophrenia describes her experiences with mental illness, her strained relationship with her family, discrimination from employers, and the general stigma that she regularly encountered due to her condition. Ironically, she also discussed the danger that police encounters present to people living with mental illness.

“We are all aware of the all too frequent news stories about the mentally ill who come up against law enforcement instead of mental health professionals and end up dead.” Danner wrote, “We should all be aware that these circumstances represent very, very serious problems that need addressing.”