Deborah Danner deserved help and patience, not fatal bullets
Deborah Danner, a 66-year-old black woman, was known by the local police. But that didn’t stop them from killing her Tuesday evening.
The NYPD responded to a 911 call complaining about Danner, who had schizophrenia, yelling and screaming at residents. According to police, a uniformed sergeant approached Danner, who was naked and armed with scissors.
She was persuaded to put down the scissors but then allegedly picked up a baseball bat and attempted to hit the officer. She then purportedly charged at the officer with that bat — without delay, the sergeant opened fire into her torso twice. Instead of using a trained practice like a stun gun or another method of de-escalation, which he should very well know as someone in the force for eight years, he used his service gun.
It’s obvious that black womanhood — especially at the intersection of mental health — means that Danner didn’t have a chance.
It doesn’t escape me that police officers need to make split-second decisions based on personal interactions. It also doesn’t escape me that police officers should be trained to handle these situations. So the question remains: why do these interactions seem to always result in death for black people? The answer is clear: our anti-black system allows it to continuously occur.
Even New York Police Commissioner James O’Neill described Danner’s death as a failure, telling reporters that it’s “likely” procedures for handling these special circumstances were not followed.
The overpolicing of black women’s bodies is an old practice. Centuries ago, Saartjie Baartman, also nicknamed “the Hottentot Venus,” was taken as a slave from the “bushmen” tribe more than 200 years ago and was sold into freak shows to display her large buttocks.
It didn’t stop there though — just one month ago, our society continued its policing of black women with the clothing of Atlanta, Ga., school teacher’s aide, Patrice Brown. Brown’s attire was discussed on social media for so long that she was eventually reprimanded from administrators, who obviously didn’t care until the Internet made it a big deal.
Now we have added Danner to that list.
Considering these are black woman being persecuted by society and also the system that perpetuates it, do we even care? This is a question we must intentionally grapple with each and every day. And that’s clear because there are repeated cases where it is apparent that law enforcement does not know how to handle situations involving anything other than white people with no mental health illnesses.
Let’s face it, in three decades, much hasn’t changed on the state of policing in New York City.
On October 29, 1984, in a situation sadly similar to Danner’s, the NYPD went to the home of 66-year-old Eleanor Bumpurs. The police were enforcing a city-ordered eviction due to Bumpurs being three months behind on rent. When she refused to open the door, the police (true to form) broke in and, in an attempt to arrest her, shot her twice. Her killer, Officer Stephen Sullivan, was not indicted for manslaughter as the judge noted that evidence was “legally insufficient” for an indictment. As police department guidelines would have it, it was within the legal right of Officer Sullivan to fire two shots at her.
Like Danner, Bumpurs also had mental health needs that required less hostility from law enforcement.
As described in The Atlantic, we should think twice before calling the cops on people who experience mental illness. This is especially true for those who live at the intersection of blackness, womanhood, and poverty. The lack of culturally competent training in the police force, a reduction in mental health service spending, and an unnecessary fear of people who experience mental illness leave many brutalized and killed at high rates.
Police are only worried about acquiescence, which does not take into account that some people who have developmental disabilities may not be able to cognitively comply with “reasonable” orders, even lawful ones. Law enforcement only sees this as active resistance, instead of a person who may not even fully understand the request being made. Day-by-day, it is becoming clearer that law enforcement officers are deeply concerned about their own safety but not others’. And that’s because our life seems to hold little value.
While black people are attempting to somehow show the valuation of our life, many cops like the International Association of Chiefs of Police President Terrance Cunningham think the job is done by apologizing for historical racial abuse. Apologizing for historical acts of abuse completely removes the idea that violence still occurs. We know better though. Danner knew better.
The NYPD has confirmed that Danner’s killer has been placed on “modified duty,” meaning that although he does not have his gun and badge, he still works in a non-law enforcement capacity. All the while, Danner — another black woman — is killed because police officers are not adequately trained to effectively handle situations that will save lives — because black womanhood and mental illness doesn’t require them to care.
Preston Mitchum is a Washington, DC-based writer, activist, and policy nerd. He has written for the Atlantic, The Root, Ebony.com, Huffington Post, Hello Beautiful, and Think Progress. Follow him on Twitter here to see just how much he appreciates intersectionality.