It’s been one year since the fatal shooting of mentally ill, bat-wielding Bronx resident Deborah Danner at the hands of an NYPD sergeant in The Bronx — an incident immediately condemned by both the mayor and police commissioner. NYPD Sgt. Hugh Barry has since been indicted for murder, and the department is scrambling to retrain its officers on how to handle cases of emotionally disturbed people.
DNAinfo set down recently with a retired 20-year NYPD veteran to analyze video of another recent fatal police shooting of a weapon-wielding, mentally ill person — the first one captured by the NYPD on body cameras — to hear the law-enforcement side of how those responses can go.
A still image from NYPD body-camera footage showing the moments before officers fatally shot Miguel Richards in The Bronx (Credit: NYPD)
THE BRONX — The officers who fatally shot an emotionally disturbed man in The Bronx last month showed great restraint and followed departmental procedures to a T — despite the highly charged nature of the encounter, a retired NYPD detective sergeant said.
When officers from the 47th Precinct responded to the scene, they found Miguel Richards, 31, with his back against a wall inside a dimly lit Eastchester apartment, in an incident shown on police body-camera footage released by the NYPD.
Richards had a knife in his left hand, and his right hand hidden behind his back — a scenario that retired Det. Sgt. Joseph Giacalone said is among the scariest for police.
“Here’s a guy in the corner. He’s wearing sunglasses. The hands are something you always want to see,” explained Giacalone, now a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, who noted that he responded to hundreds of calls of emotionally disturbed individuals during his career.
“He’s got his hands behind his back. Tactically, you see the cops go right for the door jambs. That’s the safest place for you in case someone shoots at you.
WARNING: THE VIDEO CONTAINS DISTURBING IMAGES AND STRONG LANGUAGE
“Here’s another thing tactically they have right: Flashlights,” he added. “Some of these older apartments in New York City don’t have the lights in the ceilings. They have the lamp in the corner, and it casts shadows and it’s dark. This is why you always have to have the flashlight with you.”
Giacalone said that the officers were likely “shocked” when they opened the door and saw Richards wasn’t in a chair or on a bed, but instead standing against a wall.
“They’re trying to engage him in conversation and no response,” he said. “They’re not screaming at him. They didn’t lose their cool. They’re very calm. Cops are human beings. You’re going to feel the same fear as anybody else would.”
Giacalone added that an officer saying, “This isn’t going to end well,” around the 2:24 mark in the video, was a desperate bid to strike a chord with Richards.
“I think he’s just trying to reach him at any level,” he said. “They’re not rushing him. They’re not trying to force his hand.”
In regard to any criticisms that officers could have tried to wait Richards out, Giacalone said that could have potentially led to even more violence.
“The soft stuff didn’t work,” he explained. “At this point a decision’s got to be made here. I’d be asking, 'When is [the Emergency Services Unit] going to get here?' This is turning bad. Something’s got to be done. He’s got to be taken out of there. Somebody’s going to have to approach this guy. You just can’t say, ‘Oh you don’t want to come out? We’re going to leave now. We’ll see you later.’ People will say, 'Why don't they just retreat and wait? There are other people who are in this apartment building. What happens if they leave... and he goes into the next apartment and kills somebody? Then what would you be saying? They're not going anywhere."
Giacalone said his one criticism of the officers is that they should have told the man's landlord, who’s heard shouting at Richards throughout the video, to leave sooner.
“You want to try to avoid bringing in other people who might upset the person even more, but you’re kind of grasping at straws, too,” he said. “You have to be very careful when you’re dealing with outside people.
“You try to have one officer try to build that rapport with him,” he added. “Now he’s got three people. You have to remember, he’s not of stable mind. Now he’s getting stimuli from three different places that can also cause even more confusion.”
Giacalone said there are no rules against using profanity in a case like this, but added that it seemed the officers were “getting a little undone.”
“I think this is one of the concerns of body cams — is you’ll get the real, raw footage of it and people will be like, ‘Oh my God! The cop said the F-word,’” he said. “This is reality, though. I’m sure your local clergy person says a curse word every now and then too.”
The maneuver that escalated the situation, Giacalone said, comes around the 6:45 mark in the video, when Richard shifts slightly — causing more uncertainty about whether he will whip out a gun.
“He went back even further,” he said. “He made more of a violent posture toward the cops. They’d call that a furtive move. He goes into the bladed body position, which usually means you’re going to draw down on somebody.”
He said officers are trained to keep talking with the suspect to buy time until a sergeant or ESU can arrive.
WARNING: DISTURBING IMAGES AND STRONG LANGUAGE
By the time another team of officers arrives and moves in with a Taser, Giacalone said the officers had given Richards every chance they could and were left with no other option.
“They tried non-lethal weapon knowing this guy possessed a gun. Even if it’s not real, at the moment it’s a real gun," he said. "Talk about a ballsy move — still trying to use a non-lethal method to get this guy out of control knowing he’s got a handgun.”
Giacalone explained that the reason officers didn't try shooting the gun out of Richards' hand is because police "aren't trained like military people."
"You're not in a state of war. You don't do live-fire exercises. If this is a military situation, it might've ended a lot differently, because they're used to having people with gun shooting at them and those sorts of things. In policing, it's not like that," he explained.
“There’s no such thing as a good police shooting — they’re either justified or not,” he added. “I look at this, it’s an unfortunate occurrence, but it’s a justified shooting."
Giacalone said no officer hopes to encounter a scenario like those officers did last month, or like NYPD Sgt. Hugh Barry did before the fatal Danner encounter last October. But when a dangerous weapon is involved, essentially anything goes, he said.
"What happens if she misses and hits you in the side of the head?" he asked of Danner. "You don't get paid to get disabled. You don't get paid to get hit in the head with a bat or break a couple of ribs. 'Oh, that's what you signed up for.' No. I didn't sign up to get assaulted with a bat.
"If you come at me with a baseball bat and I'm the police, I'm going to shoot you, too," he added. "I don't think there's a cop out there that wouldn't have shot her, even the police commissioner."