New York City Police Sergeant Charged With Murder in Bronx Woman’s Death


A New York City police sergeant who fatally shot a mentally ill woman in her Bronx apartment in October was charged on Wednesday with murder in the woman’s death.

The arrest of the sergeant, Hugh Barry, followed months of investigation into the encounter with the woman, Deborah Danner, 66. Her death echoed the fatal police shooting in 1984 of Eleanor Bumpurs, a woman with a history of mental illness.

Sergeant Barry, who had been on the police force eight years and was assigned to the 43rd Precinct, was charged with second-degree murder, first- and second-degree manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide, and was suspended without pay.

Police officers rarely face criminal charges in deaths that occur when they are on duty, and murder charges are even more rare.

Ms. Danner was killed on Oct. 18 after Sergeant Barry and other officers responded to 911 calls of a woman acting erratically at an apartment building in the Castle Hill neighborhood.

Within hours of her death, the sergeant was stripped of his badge and gun and placed on modified duty, although the police, in their initial account, said that Ms. Danner had tried to swing a wooden bat at him.

Mayor Bill de Blasio and the police commissioner, James P. O’Neill, said Sergeant Barry had not followed police protocol for dealing with people with mental illness. Specifically, he did not use his stun gun to try to subdue Ms. Danner, and he did not wait for a specialized Emergency Service Unit to arrive.

On Wednesday afternoon, Sergeant Barry, 31, appeared in court in the Bronx, dressed in a suit. Standing before Judge Robert A. Neary, Sergeant Barry kept his eyes forward as his lawyer, Andrew C. Quinn, entered a plea of not guilty on his behalf. Judge Neary set bail at $100,000, and Sergeant Barry was escorted from the courtroom.

After Ms. Danner’s death, the Bronx district attorney, Darcel D. Clark, asked the state to impanel a special grand jury to hear evidence in the case. But the state attorney general, who has the power to investigate police shootings of unarmed people, declined to pursue a formal inquiry, suggesting the preliminary evidence had confirmed that Ms. Danner was armed when she was killed.

Ms. Clark, a former judge and the wife of a city police detective, took over the investigation and sought a grand jury in December.

On Wednesday, Edward D. Mullins, the president of the Sergeants Benevolent Association, blasted the grand jury’s decision. After the sergeant was charged, the mayor said the death “was a tragedy felt deeply by our city.”

In a statement, Mr. Mullins said Commissioner O’Neill’s criticism, “before any investigation was even commenced,” had “undoubtedly tainted the grand jury pool and denied any semblance of due process” for the sergeant.

Over the last few years, several killings of unarmed people by the police have increased pressure on prosecutors to pursue criminal cases against officers. Charges have been filed in several prominent cases — including in the deaths of men in Baltimore; North Charleston, S.C.; and Tulsa, Okla. — but such cases are difficult.

In Baltimore, prosecutors dropped charges against three of the officers involved after failing to win convictions against three other officers charged in the case. In Tulsa, a jury acquitted the officer, and in North Charleston, the state trial of an officer on murder and manslaughter charges ended in a mistrial, though the officer, who had been fired, eventually pleaded guilty to a federal civil rights charge.

In Brooklyn, a police officer, Peter Liang, was charged in the fatal shooting of an unarmed man, Akai Gurley, in the stairwell of a public housing complex in Brooklyn. Mr. Liang was convicted last year of manslaughter but was sentenced to a term of probation, a decision that outraged Mr. Gurley’s family.

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The encounter between Ms. Danner and the police lasted 15 to 20 minutes, in the close quarters of her seventh-floor apartment at 630 Pugsley Avenue, officials said. It began with 911 calls from neighbors who had heard Ms. Danner being “loud and disruptive” in the hallway, Wanda Perez-Maldonado, an assistant district attorney, said in court. It was not the first time the police had been called to her home.

Four officers and two paramedics arrived around 6 p.m. and Sergeant Barry arrived minutes later. The encounter ended with Sergeant Barry firing twice, fatally wounding Ms. Danner, who was in her bedroom.

The sergeant could face life in prison if convicted of the most serious charge.

Initially, the police said that Sergeant Barry persuaded Ms. Danner to drop a pair of scissors, but that she picked up a bat and tried to swing at him. Only Sergeant Barry was in the bedroom with Ms. Danner.

In court, Mr. Quinn called the case an obvious instance of what is known under New York law as a “justification defense.” Under state law, officers can use deadly force when they reasonably believe deadly force is about to be used against them or someone else. Sergeant Barry can argue that he acted in self-defense, former prosecutors and defense lawyers said.

“If someone is coming at you with a bat, that is deadly physical force,” said Marvyn Kornberg, a Queens defense lawyer who has handled police cases.

At trial, the perception of the officer almost always becomes a critical issue. A jury must decide if Sergeant Barry had reason to believe his life was threatened in the moment he fired. The prosecution will have to show the killing was capricious and unjustified because the sergeant had alternatives to using deadly force, such as retreating or using a Taser.

In the case of Ms. Bumpurs, she was holding a kitchen knife when the police, summoned during eviction proceedings, stormed her Bronx apartment. Officer Stephen Sullivan shot her, first in the hand, then in the chest. The Bronx district attorney at the time charged Officer Sullivan with second-degree murder and criminally negligent homicide. He was tried and acquitted in 1987.

Ms. Danner was killed as the Police Department was moving to train rank-and-file patrol officers in the kind of de-escalation tactics practiced by officers in the Emergency Service Unit in their dealings with mentally ill people. Sergeant Barry had not undergone the training.

A relative of Ms. Danner, Wallace Cooke Jr., who retired from the Police Department in 1984 after 15 years as an officer, said he welcomed news of the arrest of Sergeant Barry.

“It’s about time that they be held accountable for their action,” Mr. Cooke, 74, said in a telephone interview on Wednesday.

Charles J. Hargreaves, a lawyer for the state’s Mental Hygiene Legal Services who represented Ms. Danner in a guardianship case a few years ago, said that the indictment gave him no joy.

He recalled an essay by Ms. Danner that recounted her struggle of decades with schizophrenia and her fears of dying in a confrontation with the police.

“I’ve always been of the mind that she was terrified at the time,” Mr. Hargreaves said. “I wasn’t there, but what was the emergency that they couldn’t have not gone into the apartment and waited for E.M.S. or someone else?”