Oct 31, 2016
By RICHARD STEIER
|NO TRUE BILL?: The rush to judgment by Mayor de Blasio (far left) in faulting the NYPD Sergeant who fatally shot Deborah Danner violated the officer’s right to due process and smacked of politics, according to former New York Civil Liberties Union head Norman Siegel (center). While political consultant George Arzt credited the Mayor with heading off ‘a tinderbox situation’ by calling the handling of the incident ‘unacceptable,’ Crown Heights Youth Collective head Richard Green (right) said the Mayor should have been more mindful of the effect it had on other police officers.|
Mayor de Blasio’s quick condemnation of Sgt. Hugh Barry for not following his training and waiting for NYPD Emergency Services Unit cops to arrive, rather than engaging with Deborah Danner and eventually fatally shooting the mentally ill woman when she came at him with a baseball bat, was not the first time he oversimplified an emotionally-charged situation with racial overtones to cast blame on the police.
In March 2012, in a speech that was a clear signal of his plans to run for Mayor the following year, then-Public Advocate Bill de Blasio gave a speech at John Jay College that offered a preview not only of his campaign positions but also his governing philosophy.
“Further ensuring our city’s public safety requires us to dispel the belief that we must choose between a large, effective police force and a force that works in partnership with the community,” he stated. “This is a false dichotomy. I believe we can and we must do both.”
He also said he believed stop-and-frisk was a useful police tool but that it had been vastly overdone by the Bloomberg administration, citing a remark by the man who would become his first Police Commissioner, Bill Bratton, comparing it to chemotherapy: something that administered with the right dose could save lives but could prove fatal if too much was injected.
A Dubious Equivalence
All well and good and hard to dispute. But there was one line in his speech that clanked with political calculation. “The names Abner Louima, Amadou Diallo and Sean Bell left scars that still underlie the attitudes of some toward law enforcement in communities across the city,” Mr. de Blasio said.
It was placing the case of Mr. Bell in the same sentence with those of Mr. Louima—who had been tortured by a crazed cop inside a stationhouse bathroom—and Mr. Diallo, who was fatally shot by four new Street Crime Unit officers who mistook him for a rape suspect he didn’t resemble, aside from both men being black, that made him sound like someone playing to his base rather than making careful distinctions.
The main similarity between the Diallo and Bell cases was that they both featured unarmed black men and police firing an unusually high number of bullets: 41 at Mr. Diallo, 50 at Mr. Bell and two companions in his car.
But the Diallo cops simply handled the situation like amateurs, working together that night for the first time and without a supervisor present.
The Bell case unfolded outside a Queens nightclub that had earned enough notoriety that police had launched an undercover operation in response to community complaints about alleged criminal activity on its premises. An undercover officer had heard one of Mr. Bell’s friends loudly argue with another patron outside the entrance and, when the other man pantomimed having a gun in his coat, respond by threatening to get a gun of his own.
The undercover Detective, Gescard Isnora, fearing a driveby shooting might be imminent, followed the man who made the threat, Joseph Guzman, along with Mr. Bell and a third companion, then confronted them after they’d gotten in the car, his gun drawn but wearing his shield. It wasn’t clear whether Mr. Bell didn’t realize that he was a cop or instead knew he was and had visions of winding up in prison on a day when he was supposed to get married. But he gunned the engine and struck Detective Isnora hard enough that an imprint from his jeans was left on the front bumper, went in reverse and struck an approaching police van, then drove right at Mr. Isnora a second time.
Justified in Shooting
The cop would later testify that he saw Mr. Guzman in the back seat bend down and thought he might reaching for a gun, prompting him to fire. In fact there was no gun in the car, but Mr. Isnora was justified in shooting strictly based on Mr. Bell using his vehicle as a deadly weapon against him. The fusillade of police bullets that followed left the driver dead and Mr. Guzman seriously wounded; he was still walking with a cane when he testified at the trial of Mr. Bell and two other officers more than 16 months later.
Mr. Bell’s bride-to-be, Nicole Paultre, was a particularly sympathetic figure. He was less so, given that he was found to be drunk at the time of the fatal confrontation and had, not long before it, attempted to pick up one of the club’s employees. Mr. Guzman, who was the key witness against the three cops, had his credibility badly undermined after testifying that rather than making the threat that led Detective Isnora to fear a gun battle, he had served as a peacemaker between Mr. Bell and Fabio Coicou, the man who had pantomimed a gun with his hand in his coat pocket.
Under blistering cross-examination by Mr. Isnora’s lawyer about whether he had threatened to retrieve his own gun, Mr. Guzman got out of the witness chair while shouting, “Where you from? Where you from? Where I’m from, that’s not a good bluff!”
That outburst in a courtroom after being well-prepped by the Queens District Attorney’s Office made it hard to believe Mr. Guzman’s self-portrait as the cool voice of reason outside the club, and ultimately the three cops were acquitted by the Queens Supreme Court Justice hearing the case, though they all were later forced to leave the NYPD.
‘Emotional Reality’ Defense
When I went through the vast differences between that case and the shooting of Mr. Diallo with him a few days after the speech, Mr. de Blasio replied, “I wasn’t trying to say they’re all the same. Bell’s situation was different than the other two. But the emotional reality of a man losing his life on the night before his wedding was very gripping.”
True enough. But politicians who want to be leaders try to cut through the “emotional reality” to make people understand why one case represents police wrongdoing—even if the officers involved are not criminally convicted—and the other is a tragic outcome in which it’s not nearly as easy to fault the cops.
And just as Mr. de Blasio’s speech more than 4½ years ago failed to distinguish between such situations, his claiming less than 24 hours after Ms. Danner was fatally shot by Sergeant Barry that there were certain “important truths [that] are not debatable” put the onus on the cop. Yet there was no hard evidence that he was guilty of anything worse than not strictly following police protocol in dealing with emotionally disturbed persons by trying to engage Ms. Danner rather than waiting for ESU officers to arrive.
It was not surprising that Sergeants Benevolent Association President Ed Mullins leaped to Sergeant Barry’s defense and excoriated Mr. de Blasio for a rush to judgment. He also pungently questioned the intestinal fortitude of both Police Commissioner James O’Neill and Chief of Patrol Terence Monahan, whom he accused of bowing to political pressure in placing the Sergeant on modified duty and describing what had occurred as an NYPD failure.
A Less-Likely Critic
What was less-predictable was that the Mayor was also skewered by Norman Siegel, the former head of the New York Civil Liberties Union who maintains a law practice focused on civil-rights issues.
Expressing concerns he first enunciated soon after Mr. de Blasio’s Oct. 19 remarks, Mr. Siegel said during an Oct. 25 phone interview, “The perception is that what he’s doing is for political gain. You can’t have that feeling that politics is trumping neutral principles.”
The belief that this was what motivated the Mayor will become particularly strong, Mr. Siegel said, if Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark does not produce criminal charges against Sergeant Barry. “People will say it’s all a political process,” he explained, because the Mayor’s strong reaction had led them to believe there was a criminal case to be made against the officer.
Political consultant George Arzt differed and defended Mr. de Blasio, which was notable because he served as Press Secretary to Mayor Ed Koch, who always emphasized his inclination to give police officers the benefit of the doubt in controversial slayings.
“I think you have to give credit to de Blasio for defusing a tough situation,” Mr. Arzt said. “He knew he was gonna alienate the police unions, but he also knew he and the Police Commissioner were going to have to move quickly or he was going to face street demonstrations and possible violence.”
‘Koch Would’ve Waited’
One street demonstration actually took place hours after Mr. de Blasio’s remarks during a tense press conference at City Hall at which no police officials were by his side in a departure from the normal protocol. Protesters marched from the Pugsley Ave. address where the fatal confrontation occurred to the 43rd Precinct stationhouse where Sergeant Barry was assigned, some chanting anti-cop slogans.
“Ed Koch would’ve waited for the results of an investigation before he said anything,” Mr. Arzt said of the Mayor who served from 1978 through 1989. “But it was a different time, also. With all these police shootings around the country, there’s a cumulative effect, and there wouldn’t have taken much for it to turn into a tinderbox situation and have really gone bad.”
Mr. Siegel countered that such fears were unfounded given that the violence that has followed other questionable deaths at the hands of police in other cities has not flared up here. The one real exception, he said, concerned minor scuffles on the Brooklyn Bridge a couple of years ago that were not so much about anger over a Staten Island grand jury’s decision not to indict Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo in connection with Eric Garner’s death as that cops had indicated that protesters could march over the bridge in the traffic lanes and then tried to arrest them for it.
Understand the Downside
“In New York, generally you don’t have violence; people peacefully protest,” Mr. Siegel said. “Protesters here understand” that violence would be counterproductive to their cause.
Rather than using Sergeant Barry as a fall guy and arguing that what went wrong was the fault of one individual rather than the entire NYPD, Mr. Siegel said, the Mayor “should have gone to the demonstration and explained that it was important for all the facts to come out. What we need in this situation is some principles. To improve police/community relations, we have to understand that both sides have legitimate concerns and both sides have rights.”
He reiterated that he believed a New York Times article shortly before Ms. Danner was killed quoting some de Blasio supporters as saying they were disappointed that he hadn’t made more changes in police interaction with minority communities prompted the Mayor to make statements to reassure them that he was determined to transform the NYPD and bring greater accountability following police-involved deaths.
Opening Up the Process
But if that was his intent, Mr. Siegel said, he should have been using his political capital soon after the non-indictment in the Garner case to push for legislation that would solve the problem created by a grand-jury system in which secrecy about both evidence and deliberations has fed a perception that cops are treated differently than ordinary citizens by District Attorneys.
“Why is the grand-jury system still there in New York instead of a public-hearing process?” Mr. Siegel said.
He also faulted Commissioner O’Neill for his remarks, even though, in contrast to the Mayor, he had spoken of a collective failure rather than pointing an accusing finger at the Sergeant who fired the fatal shot.
“The Police Commissioner possibly might have to sit in judgment of Sergeant Barry,” Mr. Siegel said, referring to the NYPD’s own trial process, which would come into play if DA Clark decides not to convene a grand jury or she calls one in but it opts not to hand up charges. “He has to refrain from making statements that ‘we failed.’
“The smart thing for the Police Commissioner,” he continued, was to say, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, this is a terrible situation, but since I may eventually have to sit in judgment, I can’t say anything about it.’”
‘A Big Mistake’
Asked whether he believed Mr. O’Neill had gone further than that because of his inexperience in a job to which Mr. de Blasio named him just a couple of months earlier, Mr. Siegel replied, “Either he was told to do this or he thought that’s what the Mayor would want. I respect him, but I think he made a big mistake here. He can’t become just another political operative; he should be allowed his independence.”
Fernando Ferrer, who was Bronx Borough President at the time that Mr. Diallo was killed in the borough, was more understanding of the two men’s handling of the situation. “This is a tough moment for the city,” he said. “I thought what Commissioner O’Neill did was to try to calm the waters, and I think he’s to be commended for that.”
Regarding the Mayor, he said, “If a leader of this city’s impulse is to try to calm the waters, that’s a good thing. I don’t know whether he went too far [in directly faulting Sergeant Barry]; that’s not for me to say.”
Richard Green, the founder and executive director of the Crown Heights Youth Collective who first came to citywide attention for his work in cooling out that neighborhood during several days of disturbances that afflicted it 25 years ago, agreed with Mr. Siegel that if Mr. de Blasio said what he did to try to avert violence in the streets, his concern was misplaced.
“I think we in the City of New York are a lot more mature in handling these scenarios,” Mr. Green said. “I just don’t think it would have gone that far.”
‘Angry and Upset’
Mr. de Blasio had begun his press conference the day after Ms. Danner’s death by talking about the emotional toll it had taken on her sister, Jennifer, whom he described as “heartbroken” after having “spent decades trying to help her sister” cope with her schizophrenia.
“It was a very painful conversation, to say the least,” the Mayor said. Moments later, he added, “Many New Yorkers are feeling that pain right now. They are angry, they are upset.”
Mr. Green said such feelings were natural in the wake of the incident, “but eventually you’re going to have to put it in the hands of a grand jury. The Mayor’s entitled to his personal opinion. [But] as Mayor, his opinion goes a little further than you and I.”
And expressing himself as he had further alienated not just police-union leaders but many rank and file cops. “He has to be a little mindful of that all the time,” Mr. Green said.
Discussing Sergeant Barry’s conduct, he noted, “They said he had spent 10 minutes trying to calm [Deborah Danner] down before she dropped the scissors, which is an indication that he didn’t go in there to cause her harm.”
‘How Do We Help EDPs?’
And in focusing negative attention on the police officer, Mr. Green said, a larger issue was being obscured, one that he has frequently encountered in his work with at-risk youths and other Crown Heights residents served by his organization.
“The lesson in this is, how do we handle the emotionally disturbed?” he said. “There has to be some improvement in the handling of the mentally unstable through a citywide approach.”
Mr. Green continued, “There should’ve been some other way to get her some help besides calling 911. That puts a serious onus on cops to respond, unless it’s a specialized unit like the ESU. It’s hard to put it in the hands of a patrol officer who doesn’t know how to handle someone who you can’t be sure how they’ll respond.”
He suggested having a caller prompt on the 911 system directing that in cases where an EDP was acting out but not posing a physical threat to others or to herself, people should dial 311, leading to mental-health professionals responding rather than the police.
While the city sorts through those kinds of issues, Mr. de Blasio needs to do some soul-searching. Even Mr. Arzt, who defended his response, parted company on the Mayor’s insistence that if it were necessary for Sergeant Barry to use force against Ms. Danner, he should have deployed his Taser rather than his service weapon.
Has Delayed Impact
“I do recognize that Tasering takes some time to take effect,” Mr. Arzt said, meaning that using the stun-gun might not have prevented the Sergeant from being struck by the bat Ms. Danner swung at him.
It’s hard to believe the Mayor didn’t know that, or wouldn’t have been informed of it if he had asked his Police Commissioner about why the Sergeant might have chosen to use his gun instead. It seemed as if, whether Mr. de Blasio spoke for political advantage or out of genuine despair at what had happened to Ms. Danner, his overriding instinct was to make clear he wouldn’t abide such tragic deaths, with no thought to the message he was sending to his police force in a case in which Sergeant Barry’s action, however regrettable its consequences, looks justifiable.
A lot has changed since Mr. de Blasio’s wrongheaded conflation of the Diallo and Bell killings in his speech more than 55 months ago. Not least of those changes is that however uneasy the relationship between him and his police force may be, they are now his troops, and he needs their cooperation, if not their good will or even respect, to make the changes he believes are necessary.
Prescient or Panicky?
The fact that, except for the biting full-page ads placed in the tabloids by Sergeant Mullins early last week, the incident had largely subsided in the public discourse could mean the Mayor’s sharp words had the desired effect of preventing a violent reaction. Or, it could mean—as was the case with the relatively small protests following Mr. Bell’s death a decade ago, in contrast to the weeks of sizable rallies at Police Plaza triggered by the Diallo shooting—that the incident didn’t galvanize public outrage because it wasn’t clear that the officer involved had done anything wrong, beyond the tragic result.
Either way, though, as Mr. Green argued, the larger issue of dealing with the emotionally disturbed hadn’t been resolved.
Nor, as Mr. Siegel said, had the tensions between police and community been dissipated by the handling of the incident by the Mayor and his Police Commissioner.
“The ends can’t justify the means,” he said. “I’m glad the issue has quieted down, but it’s still bubbling.”