WABC-TV(NEW YORK) — The 66-year-old woman with schizophrenia who was killed by an NYPD sergeant Tuesday had written a poignant essay in 2012 about living with mental illness in which she expressed that police are ill-equipped to deal with the mentally ill.
In the six-page essay titled “Living With Schizophrenia,” Deborah Danner wrote about a 1984 police encounter eerily similar to the way in which she eventually died. A Bronx woman named Eleanor Bumpurs, whom Danner mistakenly characterized as “Gompers,” was fatally shot after she waved a knife at officers who were evicting her from her apartment, according to The Associated Press. The officer who fired the fatal shot was acquitted of all charges and the city paid her family.
Police shot Bumpurs because she was “a threat to the safety of several grown men who are also police officers,” Danner wrote. “They used deadly force to subdue her because they were not trained sufficiently [on] how to engage the mentally ill in crisis.”
Like Danner, Bumpurs was a black woman in her 60s with a history of mental illness, The New York Times reported. Danner said Bumpurs’ case was “not an isolated incident.” ABC News reached out to the NYPD for comment on Danners’ claim the police officers involved with Bumpurs were insufficiently trained to deal with the mentally ill in crisis, but the NYPD did not respond.
A uniformed NYPD sergeant shot Danner twice Tuesday as she attempted to strike him with a baseball bat, police said. Danner first brandished a pair of scissors at him, but the officer, Sgt. Hugh Barry, was able to convince her to put them down, police said.
On July 7, shortly after the police-involved shooting deaths of Philando Castile in Minnesota and Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Danner expressed support for the Black Lives Matter movement on Twitter and accused police of targeting people based on the color of their skin.
Point of the Conversation: How’d U like to move about w/a TARGET on you because of the color of your skin? BLACK LIVES MATTER!
— Deborah Danner (@DeborahDanner01) July 8, 2016
Police have a “very difficult job to do” when they intervene in situations involving a mentally ill person, said Michael B. Friedman, a professor of mental health policy at Columbia University’s School of Social Work.
While Friedman said it’s necessary to continue to improve training for all police officers on how to deal with an emotionally disturbed or psychotic person, he added that it may be better to have crisis teams specifically trained to effectively deal with the mentally ill.
“There is no question that people with serious mental illnesses sometimes suffer in our society in ways that they shouldn’t suffer,” Friedman said. “Sometimes they have encounters with people from law enforcement that are not well done.”
Most medium- to large-sized police departments have some sort of mental health training for their officers, said Dr. Laurence Miller, a clinical and forensic psychologist in South Florida. But, while the training is “good in the abstract,” it may not prevent a tragedy from happening when dealing with a mentally ill person.
“Mental illness can make the situation more dangerous,” Miller said, adding an emotionally disturbed person can be unpredictable or unstable, and may not obey typical commands.
Miller said ordinary household items such as a knife, club, brick, lamp or potted plant could become a deadly weapon in the hands of a mentally ill person, and Friedman cautioned the public from rushing to judgment on whether the police officer in question was justified in his use of force before the investigation is complete.
In a press conference Wednesday, New York City Police Commissioner James O’Neill said the NYPD “failed” Danner when they responded to a neighbor’s 911 call for a “person in crisis.”
“That’s not how it’s supposed to go,” O’Neill said. “It’s not how we train. Our first obligation is to preserve life — not to take a life when it can be avoided.”
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio corroborated O’Neill’s statement, saying that Barry did not follow his police training.
The Sergeants Benevolent Association said: “Being forced to shoot a civilian under any circumstances is traumatic for police officers, but to be immediately vilified based on innuendo and the social and political climate only compounds the tragedy.”
Barry has been put on administrative leave while the NYPD conducts an internal investigation into why he used deadly force rather than deploying a Taser.
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