A New York City police sergeant who fatally shot a mentally ill woman in her Bronx apartment took the witness stand Tuesday at his own trial, telling the court that he tried to grab the 66-year-old woman to prevent her from picking up a pair of scissors she had laid down just minutes earlier.
“She was too fast for me,” the sergeant, Hugh Barry, said.
Testifying for 2 1/2 hours, Barry, 32, described his reasons for trying to tackle the woman, Deborah Danner, just five minutes after he arrived, rather than taking a slower approach, as police protocols recommend.
“I made a judgment call,” he said. “I thought I was close enough to grab her.”
Barry said that as he ran after Danner and entered her bedroom, she pulled a baseball bat from under a pillow. She wheeled around, still seated, and held the club up, waggling it like a batter, he said. He said he did not know she had a bat until that moment.
Barry said that he drew his gun and pleaded with her to drop the bat but that she stood up and took a step toward him, shifting her weight to start a swing.
“I just see the bat swinging and that’s when I fired,” he said. Then he added: “I’m looking at this bat that can crack me in the head and kill me.”
Barry faces charges of murder, manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide in the death of Danner, whom he killed Oct. 18, 2016, inside her apartment.
The police had been called by a building security guard because Danner, who was a paranoid schizophrenic, was ranting in the hallways. It was the third time in two years that officers had been called in to help medical technicians take her to a hospital psychiatric ward.
The shooting prompted protests led by elected leaders and drew condemnation from Mayor Bill de Blasio and James P. O’Neill, the police commissioner, who said Barry had failed to follow police guidelines.
Whether Barry would testify in his own defense had been a question since the trial began last month. After the prosecution rested its case Tuesday morning, the sergeant took the witness stand in state Supreme Court in the Bronx. The sergeant had waived his right to a jury trial, electing to have the judge, Robert A. Neary, decide the case.
On cross-examination, Barry, a nine-year veteran, said that he was in the apartment for about five minutes before he shot Danner. He also conceded he had not followed many of the department’s protocols for handling people with mental illness.
Barry said Danner was sitting on her bed angrily cutting up paper with scissors when he arrived at 6:22 p.m. He tried to persuade her to come out and speak to an emergency medical technician. She initially refused, uttering a curse and holding up the scissors like a dagger.
Barry said he told Danner the medics just wanted to talk to her. She replied they could come to her bedroom. He explained they could not enter if she had scissors. Then he offered to take a step back if she would come out.
He said Danner slammed the scissors down on her nightstand and came just outside her bedroom door, announcing: “This is as far as I’m going.”
A few minutes later, Barry said he judged he would not be able to coax her farther. “She was adamant — she wasn’t leaving that spot,” he said. He said he nodded to the other officers, signaling he intended to tackle her, then rushed her. But she ran into her bedroom. “She was much faster than I thought,” he said.
Barry said that once he stepped into her bedroom and saw her holding the bat, he could not back out, because his fellow officers were crowded close behind him. “It was like having my back against the wall,” he said.
He said the Taser on his belt was “not appropriate” to counter a weapon like a bat.
Barry’s account differed in many small but significant ways from the testimony of the five other officers and two emergency medical technicians who were there. Some witnesses recalled that Danner had put down the scissors before Barry arrived.
But the only other officer to see the shooting, Camilo Rosario, confirmed the sergeant’s account on one crucial point: He said Danner shifted her weight forward and was about to swing the bat when she was shot. Both officers testified she never completed her swing. “She was in the middle of a swing, and that’s when I shot her,” Barry said.
On cross-examination, the lead prosecutor, Wanda Perez-Maldonado, elicited that Barry had not followed his training and appeared to ignore many of the department’s protocols. For instance, he left a shield and restraining straps for dealing with disturbed people in his car.
Perez-Maldonado suggested that Barry had rushed to subdue Danner instead of isolating her and waiting her out. Barry repeatedly asserted he was worried she would rearm herself and hurt someone. He said he seized the opening to take her down. “In situations like this, sometimes you have a split second,” he said. “You can’t always make a plan.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.