Easy enough for New York City police commissioner James O’Neill to proclaim failure in Tuesday evening’s fatal shooting of a mentally ill Bronx woman, Deborah Danner, by an NYPD sergeant. But what sort of failure was it? The sergeant’s? The department’s? And what does “failure” even mean in a case like this?
“What is clear in this instance: we failed,” said O’Neill. Mayor de Blasio was even more emphatic: “Deborah Danner should be alive right now. Period,” he said. That would appear to be obvious. According to the NYPD, police answered a call for an emotionally disturbed woman at Danner’s building. She had a long history of mental illness, neighbors said, and she was initially threatening officers with a pair of scissors. Convinced to put them down by NYPD sergeant Hugh Barry, Danner then picked up a baseball bat and advanced on Barry, who shot her twice with his service weapon.
Open and shut? The mayor seems to think so: “We did fail and we need to say it out loud.” Well, perhaps. Time will tell about the “fail” part—but the “out loud” bit seems on its face to be just one more instance of de Blasio inserting ill-considered rhetoric into situations that would be better served by silence. Hard cases make bad law, as the hoary cliché goes. When it comes to officer-involved shootings, politicians can be counted on to take good law and twist it to their own purposes—undercutting respect for an ordered society in general, and for cops specifically.
Barry’s culpability in this case—or lack thereof—will be subjected to official scrutiny for months. Did he follow NYPD protocols for dealing with emotionally disturbed individuals? Did he properly supervise the officers under his command? Did he, in fact, face a deadly threat? And then the most important question of all: given the obvious chaos in Danner’s apartment at the crucial moment, would it have been reasonable for Barry to believe that his life was in danger?
That’s important—indeed, critical—because the law in New York State more or less presumptively grants police officers wide latitude in the use of deadly force in cases where they reasonably believe a deadly threat exists. This subtlety sometimes eludes prosecutors; former Bronx district attorney Robert Johnson paid it no mind in 1999, when he indicted four NYPD officers for murder in the death of Amadou Diallo—only to have a state Supreme Court justice effectively direct an acquittal because of ambiguities in the case. The officers may seem to have acted outrageously—they fired 41 shots at the unarmed Diallo, hitting him 19 times—but not unreasonably, given the circumstances. Or so the judge and jury found.
But why should such an exemption exist? Why should police officers be deemed less accountable in cases of deadly violence than ordinary citizens? Fair questions, both. The answer: common sense says so. Police work, now more than ever, is inherently dangerous. But cops mustn’t be required to take unreasonable risks, and the law in New York is written to reflect that judgment. This explains both the Diallo verdict and the seeming reluctance of prosecutors to indict cops in police-involved deaths.
There is no reason to expect ordinary citizens to understand the legal subtleties here. But there is every reason to assume police commissioners—and mayors—will. They should act accordingly. O’Neill has 30,000-plus cops under his command; any one of them could face a deadly threat at any moment, and some of them will. They need to understand that the NYPD stands behind them until circumstances dictate otherwise. That means not starting the conversation with an abject apology. Cops who think they’ll be hung out to dry quickly will become bashful cops. And why should criminals be given that advantage?
It’s no secret where de Blasio stands on such matters, of course. But he would be wise to watch his words, too, for the same reasons O’Neill should be more circumspect. This isn’t to say that the pressure to find fault with the NYPD won’t be enormous in this case. It already is. That’s all the more reason for O’Neill and de Blasio to curb the rhetoric and let justice take its course.
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