NEW YORK (AP) — New York City’s mayor castigated a police sergeant Wednesday for fatally shooting a mentally ill, 66-year-old woman brandishing a baseball bat, saying her “tragic” and “unacceptable” death resulted from failure to follow basic policies.
“Our officers are supposed to use deadly force only when faced with a dire situation. It’s very hard to see that standard was met,” a somber Mayor Bill de Blasio said. “Something went horribly wrong here.”
The unusual rebuke came less than 24 hours after Deborah Danner, who is black, was shot to death in her Bronx apartment. And it came even as investigators were still looking into why the white officer didn’t call for an emergency services unit and didn’t use his department-issued stun gun.
“Deborah Danner should be alive right now, period,” the mayor said. “If the protocols had been followed, she would be alive. It’s as simple as that.”
Earlier, New York police Commissioner James O’Neill said his department “failed” by not using means other than deadly force.
“That’s not how it’s supposed to go,” O’Neill said. “It’s not how we train; our first obligation is to preserve life, not to take a life when it can be avoided.”
The head of the police union representing sergeants, Ed Mullins, said the shooting was self-defense and bemoaned what he characterized as a politically motivated rush to judgment.
“We could be sitting here talking about how a 66-year-old … fractured his skull,” Mullins said.
Police were responding to a 911 call about an emotionally disturbed person around 6:15 p.m. Tuesday when an eight-year veteran of the force, Sgt. Hugh Barry, encountered Danner in her seventh-floor apartment, police said.
Officers had been called to Danner’s home several times before to take her to the hospital during psychiatric episodes, the mayor said. Each of those times, she was taken away safely. This time was different.
Barry persuaded Danner to drop a pair of scissors she had been holding, but when she picked up the bat and tried to strike him, he fired two shots that hit her torso, police said.
Danner’s sister, Jennifer, was in the hallway, outside the apartment, waiting to accompany her to the hospital, when the shots rang out, said the mayor, who spoke to her on Wednesday.
“It was a very painful conversation to say the least,” he said. “I told her how sorry I was.”
Danner “had been sick since she was in college,” her cousin, Wallace Cooke Jr., said.
Cooke, 74, a retired police officer, said officers had been at her apartment “multiple, multiple times over the years.” His cousin had recently stopped taking her medication, but “that’s not an excuse to be dead.”
Barry was stripped of his badge and gun and placed on desk duty while the state attorney general’s office determines whether the case falls under its authority to investigate police shooting of unarmed civilians. Police officials were investigating why the sergeant chose not to use a stun gun he was carrying or retreat and wait for backup from specially trained emergency service officers.
New York City police responds to tens of thousand of calls about emotionally disturbed people each year. Officers and commanders, Barry among them, receive training on how to deal with mentally ill people that includes instruction in techniques to “de-escalate” a situation, rather than resort to force.
“We need to know why this officer did not follow his training,” de Blasio said.
The investigation will have to move forward without eyewitness accounts besides Barry’s and no video evidence: Barry and Danner were the only ones inside the bedroom at the time of shooting and the NYPD is still in the midst of testing body cameras it expects to put into use early next year.
Tuesday’s killing evoked memories of the 1984 police killing of another 66-year-old Bronx woman.
Eleanor Bumpurs died from two shotgun blasts as she waved a knife at officers evicting her from her public housing apartment after falling behind in her rent. Bumpurs was black, and community activists decried the shooting as racist.
The Rev. Al Sharpton called the killing “atrocious” and said it shows a need for an “overhaul in police training.” He said O’Neill’s comments were “good and responsible” but should be the beginning of systematic change.
Associated Press writers Mike Balsamo, Jake Pearson, Frank Eltman and Kiley Armstrong contributed to this report.