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Painted Brain | The Death Of Deborah Danner
We're bridging communities and changing the conversation about mental illness using arts and media.
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  • October 30, 2016

The Death of Deborah Danner

(originally published 10/20/16 by The New York Times)

Remember the name: Deborah Danner.

She was killed by a New York police sergeant on Tuesday in her Bronx apartment. Neighbors had called 911, saying she was acting erratically. A team of officers arrived and, according to the police account, found an agitated Ms. Danner brandishing first a pair of scissors, and then a baseball bat. She took a swing at the sergeant, who shot her twice.

The investigation has just begun, but the case looks bad for the department. Police Commissioner James O’Neill almost immediately placed the sergeant, Hugh Barry, on modified duty, stripped of his badge and gun. Mayor Bill de Blasio said at a news conference that the sergeant had not followed training or protocols for dealing with those with mental illness, and for some reason had neither used his Taser nor waited for specialized officers trained to deal with such situations. Mr. O’Neill said: “We failed.”

Ms. Danner, 66, now joins a tragic group of people whose mental illness leads them into a dangerous, often fatal, collision with the police. She would have been another cipher, another mental-health casualty, her inner struggles known only to her family and friends, but for a remarkable essay she wrote four years ago, “Living With Schizophrenia,” which her lawyer shared with The Times.

To read its six shattering pages is to come face-to-face with the isolation, self-doubt and crushing misery of mental illness. “Even the smartest people/persons in the world could not function in the realm of normalcy with that monkey on their backs,” she wrote. She told of the constant unease of not knowing where her sickness would take her: “What if my medication fails me? I ask myself, will I know if it does? Will the illness overpower its effectiveness? When? Where?”

And she wrote this:

“Is that a delusion, I ask myself, my belief that I am worthy of respect and a ‘normal’ happy life?”

Of course she was worthy of respect and happiness. The police had been called to Ms. Danner’s apartment before. Her family and neighbors knew of her torment. It is hard to see how a group of officers with Tasers could have ended up using lethal force against a sick woman. Hard to see, and yet entirely predictable.

Mr. de Blasio has vowed to make sure this never happens again. The answers that came too late in this tragedy are obvious: A citywide effort to expand mental-health care, which the de Blasio administration has begun. Sending mental-health professionals to accompany officers on calls like these. Swiftly completing training for all officers in defusing mental-health confrontations — a program Sergeant Barry had not yet undergone.

The head of the sergeants’ union has denounced the mayor and commissioner for admitting police failure, calling it a political rush to judgment. Investigators will determine whether Sergeant Barry feared for his life; his story will be given due consideration, his innocence presumed. No such mercy will ever be available for the late Deborah Danner.

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