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The inescapable question, as NYPD Sgt. Hugh Barry prepared for a departmental trial due to begin Sept. 20 concerning actions that ended with him fatally shooting Deborah Danner inside her Bronx apartment nearly five years ago, is, Why Now?
It has been 43 months since a Bronx judge acquitted Sergeant Barry of murder charges, concluding that the Bronx District Attorney's Office failed to prove that he did not have reasonable cause to fear for his life when Ms. Danner, who had a long history of schizophrenia, lunged toward him swinging a baseball bat.
Right after the verdict, then-Police Commissioner James O'Neill indicated that the Sergeant would face internal charges. But after so much time passed without a case being presented, and with Mr. O'Neill having stepped down a couple of years ago, there seemed no compelling reason to bring one.
The other city official who had rushed to judgment about an officer's split-second reaction in a life-and-death situation was Mayor de Blasio, however. And where Mr. O'Neill's remarks had not been sharply critical of the Sergeant—he called the incident a collective failure by the NYPD—Mr. de Blasio was unsparing in his criticism, excoriating Mr. Barry for not backing off to await the arrival of the NYPD's Emergency Services Unit to handle the situation, and arguing that if force really was necessary, he should have used his Taser first.
There were two major problems with the Mayor's analysis. One was that Tasers can be unreliable, sometimes failing to subdue the target, and sometimes having a fatal impact rather than just stunning the person. The latter outcome happened 15 days after Ms. Danner was slain, in another Bronx incident in which Sgt. William Melrose used a Taser twice to shock Ariel Galarza and wound up killing him.
The other was presented two days after that—also in The Bronx—when Sgt. Paul Tuozzolo, responding to a domestic-violence complaint, approached another person with a history of mental illness, Manuel Rosales, who immediately responded by fatally shooting him.
Mr. de Blasio has shown uniquely poor judgment regarding what were arguably the two most-controversial police-involved shootings of his tenure. He overreacted to Sergeant Barry's shooting of Ms. Danner. And he wasn't nearly as critical of cops who deserved it far more: Daniel Pantaleo for using a chokehold that helped cause the death of Eric Garner, and the other cops involved in that incident—from a Chief of Department who ordered arrests for selling loose cigarettes, to the officers who did nothing to assist Mr. Garner as he lay unconscious on the ground, and communicated their lack of urgency to the private ambulance crew that belatedly responded.
The Mayor is the logical suspect in the effort to prosecute Sergeant Barry this late in the game. Who in the Police Department could possibly imagine any purpose was being served in going after an officer who, while he didn't follow NYPD protocol, still spent 10 minutes trying to reason with Ms. Danner, finally convincing her to drop the scissors in what he briefly believed was a peaceful resolution of a stressful situation.
That hardly fits the description of a cop with malevolence in his heart or impatience for dealing with the citizens of the city. There was no indication that ESU officers were just minutes away from bringing their expertise to bear if he hadn't tried to talk her out of the irrational anger that too often in the past overwhelmed her intelligence.
And as Sergeants Benevolent Association President Ed Mullins pointed out shortly after the shooting, while castigating Commissioner O'Neill and Mr. de Blasio for their rush to judgment, the department's own training gives officers the right to use their gun when threatened by a bat, and a question on an NYPD exam given a short time earlier credited that tactic as the right answer in such a situation.
There's reason to believe that Mr. Barry's languished on a promotion list for Lieutenant because department brass imagines that advancing him a rank would be bad public relations. Maybe those officials—and the Mayor—don't realize that prosecuting Sergeant Barry at this point is a far-greater embarrassment to the department, even if the people most likely to notice it are the ones who wear the uniform.