A Year Later, Trial of Officer Who Killed Mentally Ill Woman Is in Limbo
A year ago, Sgt. Hugh Barry stood in a trial room at the headquarters of the New York Police Department after being accused of making reckless decisions that led him to fatally shoot a mentally ill woman in her Bronx bedroom in 2016.
Twelve months later, the outcome of that administrative trial is still unknown.
The two-week trial, which began on Jan. 18, 2022, focused on whether Sergeant Barry failed to follow the proper rules and procedures when responding to a 911 call about a 66-year-old schizophrenic woman in crisis named Deborah Danner, and whether he should lose his job as a result. Only six minutes had elapsed between the sergeant’s arrival at Ms. Danner’s building and the moment he shot her — not nearly enough time to fully assess the situation, lawyers for the Police Department argued.
Without a decision, the public does not know how Mayor Eric Adams and Police Commissioner Keechant Sewell will respond to the deaths of other mentally ill people. The families of those who have died also do not know how officers might be held accountable, and officers do not know how their actions might be judged.
The case is under final review by Commissioner Sewell, said Julian Phillips, a police spokesman. Once she reaches a decision, she will notify the parties and the public, he said.
Officers respond to hundreds of radio calls about emotionally disturbed people every day, more than 100,000 a year, but few of those calls end in death.
Sergeant Barry shot Ms. Danner, who was holding a baseball bat in her bedroom, after reports that she had been screaming in the hallways. He was charged with murder, manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide, but was acquitted of all criminal charges in 2018 and remained on the force.
After the criminal case, the Police Department brought internal charges against Sergeant Barry, triggering what is called an administrative trial to determine whether he should be fired. Lawyers for the department last year called witnesses — the same ones that Bronx prosecutors called.
The length of time to make a decision in administrative trials varies. Last year, Commissioner Sewell, who has the final say, made decisions in about 40 cases from January through October, according to the most recent statistics.
Some cases had more than one defendant, and the charges against them included misuse of police resources, abuse of sick leave and excessive use of physical force. Most cases were resolved within weeks, though some took several months.
Mayor Bill de Blasio promised to speed administrative trials after the 2014 death of Eric Garner, a Staten Island man who died after a police officer placed him in a chokehold. The officer, Daniel Pantaleo, was not fired until five years later. Mayor Adams has said little about the topic.
The reason for the lengthy decision in Sergeant Barry’s case is unclear. Rosemarie Maldonado, the deputy commissioner of trials who presided over the proceeding, sent a recommendation to the first deputy commissioner’s office, which forwarded its own independent recommendation to Commissioner Sewell, Mr. Phillips said. He did not say when the commissioner would announce her decision.
In the administrative trial, Police Department lawyers said that on Oct. 18, 2016, officers and emergency service workers responded to a 911 call about Ms. Danner at 630 Pugsley Ave. in the Bronx. Her sister, Jennifer Danner, was also there.
At 6:22 p.m., Sergeant Barry joined them at her apartment, after emergency responders who had arrived earlier had persuaded her to put down a pair of scissors. But Ms. Danner was still angry at the police presence in her home.
What happened next agitated her more, said David Green, a Police Department lawyer. Sergeant Barry approached Ms. Danner in her bedroom in an attempt to keep her from picking up the scissors again. The sergeant testified during the trial that he believed he could restrain Ms. Danner. But Mr. Green said he moved in too quickly and that Ms. Danner perceived his movements as a threat.
Ms. Danner then picked up a wooden baseball bat near her bedside. After she refused to drop it, the sergeant fired two shots.
Andrew Quinn, Sergeant Barry’s lawyer, maintained that Ms. Danner had wielded a deadly weapon when she picked up the bat, leaving the officer no choice but to shoot.
The Police Department, “from a comfortable vantage point, is now second-guessing that judgment,” Mr. Quinn said in February 2022 during closing arguments at the administrative trial. “To be judged and criticized years later is infuriating and, quite frankly, insulting.”
On Tuesday, Mr. Quinn said in a statement that Sergeant Barry’s actions, “while tragic in consequence, were justified under the law as determined by a Supreme Court judge. We believe he should be given the opportunity to continue to serve in the N.Y.P.D.”
Yet department lawyers said Sergeant Barry should have tried to collect more information about Ms. Danner’s psychiatric history before entering her apartment.
He did not consult Jennifer Danner when he rode the elevator with her to the seventh-floor unit, Mr. Green said. Nor did he talk to the emergency service workers. Sergeant Barry also did not instruct his officers properly or do enough to de-escalate the tense situation, Mr. Green said.
“Without any planing and not following his training, Sergeant Barry stopped within a few feet of Deborah Danner” before she swung the baseball bat, Mr. Green said during closing arguments. “He had just created a situation where the law justified his use of deadly physical force.”
“He and he alone put himself in the position to kill Deborah Danner,” he added.
Jennifer Danner, who heard her sister’s shooting from the hallway, testified before the grand jury, as well as at the criminal trial and the administrative trial. She sat in the courtroom for both trials, never missing a day.
October will mark seven years since her sister died. Birthdays are the hardest: Ms. Danner was born on Sept. 25, Jennifer Danner on Sept. 27 and their mother on Sept. 28. “We were the three little Danner girls, all in a row,” she said.
Ms. Danner said she understood that Mayor Adams and Commissioner Sewell had a busy first year in office, and that she would have to be patient a little longer.
But, she said, she is tired of waiting.
“I want Hugh Barry fired. I want to breathe a sigh of relief,” Ms. Danner said during an interview on Monday. “I was willing to give them a little more time. But it’s been a year. What’s going on? Has a decision been made? Nobody can give me an answer.”