MANHATTAN — The NYPD sergeant who shot and killed a Bronx woman in her home this week is having his rights trampled by Mayor Bill de Blasio and Police Commissioner James O'Neill, one of the city's top civil liberties lawyers told DNAinfo New York.
Within hours of shooting Deborah Danner for coming at him with a baseball bat, Sgt. Hugh Barry was publicly excoriated by both the mayor and the commissioner — who each said he "failed" to follow police procedures and exercise appropriate restraint when dealing with the mentally ill woman.
“The mayor and Police Commissioner James O’Neill have to exercise restraint, instead of feeding red meat to the public who want the cop to be found guilty immediately,” said Norman Siegel, former head of the NYC Civil Liberties Union and a longtime community advocate for police reforms reforms.
“When you make comments like, ‘We failed,’ that is completely unacceptable,” Siegel continued. “Police officers have rights like everyone else, and we should not be publicly hanging them without their due process and trials.”
A mayoral spokesman said de Blasio "spoke honestly about a very disturbing incident and made a simple fact very clear: Deborah Danner didn't have to die. We are determined to get to the bottom of this awful incident, seek justice and ensure it never happens again.”
The NYPD didn't immediately return a request for comment.
Last Tuesday evening, police were called to the home of Danner, 66, who had suffered from schizophrenia for years. Barry entered her apartment with several officers, and initially found her armed with a pair of scissors.
After convincing her to put the scissors down, Barry told investigators she picked up a bat and swung it at his head before he fired two shots, killing her.
Almost immediately, the NYPD stripped Barry of his gun and badge and placed him on modified duty, and O’Neill announced that Barry violated department protocols for handling emotional disturbed people.
“We failed,” O’Neill declared.” This is not the way this should end.”
The mayor upped the ante, announcing that “Deborah Danner should be alive right now. Period.”
But Siegel insisted that public officials needed to exercise restraint and “demonstrate neutral principled leadership” and not cave in to public pressure that steps on anyone’s right, including police officers.
“They did not wait because they sense the crowd is angry,” he added.
“De Blasio is being criticized by many, including me, for not making the police reforms we want,” Siegel said. “But you have to remember that in this debate in improving police community relations, that police have rights, too.”
That means applying the same standards regardless of whoever is involved or responsible for a controversy. Instead of assigning blame, he said they should, "explain that there are serious questions here, but if we want due process when people accuse us of things, they have to be applicable to all.”
Siegel said he knows “some people might feel unhappy with me saying this,” but he felt compelled to “speak up” when you think something is incorrect.
He said O’Neill had to be particularly careful because he might one day have to determine Barry’s fate at an NYPD departmental trial after the criminal process concludes.
Siegel's remarks echoed those of Edward Mullins, president of the sergeants union, who welcomed the advocate’s “courageous” support.
“His is a powerful statement and his idea that civil rights goes both ways is a testimonial to his credibility,” Mullins said.
It is not the first time Siegel has taken the side of an officer in fatal shooting.
In 2004, he sharply criticized then-Commissioner Raymond Kelly for quickly describing as "unjustified" the fatal police shooting of a teen on a Brooklyn housing project rooftop.
A grand jury later declined to indict the officer for the tragic shooting, and the officer remained on the force, albeit in a non-operational capacity.
Danner's death will be investigated by Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark, rather than by the office of state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who announced that the shooting did not fall with his jurisdiction because Danner had the bat when she was shot.
An executive order by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in July 2015 stipulated the state attorney general could act as a special prosecutor in a fatal police shooting case when the victim is unarmed.