New Jersey Criminal Defense Attorney Blog Covering New Jersey and Federal Criminal Law and Procedure

Every Police Officer Must Receive Training to Deal With the Mentally Ill

On October 18, 2016, NYPD Sergeant Hugh Barry responded to the home of Deborah Danner in the Bronx.  Barry found Danner, a diagnosed schizophrenic, holding a pair of scissors and experiencing a mental health crisis.  He persuaded her to drop them, but she then picked up a bat and somehow threatened him with it.  He shot her twice in her torso, killing her.  Interestingly, Barry had a stun gun, but did not use it.  Prosecutors who charged Barry with murder this week argue that he ignored his training.  Barry’s union representatives argue that he had to make a split-second decision concerning his response to Danner, and that he did not intend to harm her.

Barry, like every other defendant, is entitled to the presumption of innocence and everything that goes with it.  Further, it is almost impossible for a third party to know precisely what happened at Danner’s home unless they were there.  In evaluating Barry’s culpability, it is important to remember that at the time of the shooting, NYPD had a small, well trained unit whose members were better equipped to respond to calls involving the mentally ill.  Further, only about a year before the Danner shooting, the Department commenced training officers more generally in this area.  However, Barry never received this training.  This is not surprising.  NYPD has approximately 35,000 officers who, collectively, responded to about 157,000 calls last year that involved individuals experiencing some sort of mental health crisis.  However, as of this time, the Department has provided only about 5,800 officers with the more specialized crisis training.

Plans to train more officers are apparently proceeding.  More shifts are being trained, as are more sergeants and high-ranking officers.  The four-day training familiarizes officers with such issues as how to spot signs of mental illness, and how to empathize with someone experiencing a crisis.  During the sessions, officers interact with patients and mental health professionals.As of this time, however, there appears to be general agreement that the training is well done, but not well implemented.  For example, the City’s 911 dispatchers do not know which officers have received the training, and therefore cannot direct them to calls where that expertise is needed.  Additionally, NYPD has noted that other City agencies must assist in the wider effort of responding to these calls by, for example, establishing drop-off centers for people who are not arrested or hospitalized.

Danner may have been schizophrenic, but she was not ignorant or unaware of her situation.  She apparently authored some sort article in 2012 where she discussed the manner in which the police treat the mentally ill.  In this article, she specifically stated that law enforcement personnel need to be trained in how to deal with the mentally ill, particularly those in crisis.

We have commented previously on this blog concerning the number of mentally ill defendants in our criminal justice system and jail/prison populations.  Given the available data, it is absolutely essential that every police department – from large urban centers to small towns – teach their officers to deal with the mentally ill as part of their most basic training.  Indeed, given the numbers we are seeing, it is not too much to ask that officers not be allowed out on the street until they receive this training.  Finally, budgetary issues are no excuse for an absence of such training.

James S. Friedman LLC, based in New Brunswick, Middlesex County, New Jersey, represents criminal defendants with mental health issues.  If you or someone you know has a mental health problem and criminal charges, contact us immediately.