You're damned if you use a TASER, and damned if you don't. That seems to sum up the collective wisdom of bureaucrats who lambast law enforcement's use of force.

A glaring example of this occurred recently in New York City. On Oct. 18, NYPD officers responded to a call regarding an emotionally disturbed subject. After entering the subject's apartment, Sgt. Hugh Barry and other officers were confronted by 66-year-old Deborah Danner. Police say Sgt. Barry was engaging Danner at the entrance of her bedroom while she was holding a pair of scissors in a threatening manner. Barry was able to convince her to drop the scissors, but Danner suddenly grabbed a baseball bat and attempted to strike him. Barry drew his service weapon and fired twice, killing Danner.

Within 24 hours of this incident, Mayor Bill de Blasio declared at a news conference, "The shooting death of Deborah Danner is tragic and unacceptable. It should never have happened. It's as simple as that." He added, "Our Officers are supposed to use deadly force when faced with a dire situation." Mayor de Blasio and other police officials went on to condemn Sgt. Barry for not deploying his TASER.

In his assessment of this incident, the only thing de Blasio got right is that Danner's death was tragic. When an emotionally disturbed person, regardless of gender, attacks an officer with a bat, it's "a dire situation."

While trampling on Sgt. Barry's reputation, de Blasio demonstrated a failed grasp of NYPD training and tactics. First, he failed to recognize a baseball bat as a potentially lethal weapon. He also failed to recognize that the behavior of someone suffering from severe mental illness can change without cue or warning. He failed to grasp that when an officer is confronted with a potentially lethal threat in close quarters, a TASER is not an option. The mayor also failed to mention that Barry was the only officer on scene who was issued a TASER. That's a failure the mayor owns.

Barry engaged Danner as the contact officer. The other officers on scene were in effect his cover. Apparently, only NYPD patrol sergeants have been issued TASERs, so the other officers on scene didn't have them. Basic tactical training teaches that it is not the contact officer's responsibility to deploy a less-lethal weapon, especially in close quarters. Because de Blasio has been unwilling or incapable of issuing TASERs to all patrol officers, he has unwittingly increased the likelihood of shooting incidents. He owns this outcome; not Sgt. Barry, who was justified in defending himself from a potentially lethal attack. 

Adding to Mayor De Blasio's failures, he apparently was unaware or indifferent to what recruits are taught in the police academy. NYPD Sergeants Benevolent Association President Ed Mullins revealed the following academy test question in his Oct. 22 release: With a baseball bat in his hands, an emotionally disturbed man charges at a police officer and threatens to break his nose. The officer is backed against a wall. Based on the Department's guidelines on the use of force and deadly physical force…(select the correct answer):

  1. Because the broken nose is not a serious physical injury, the officer may not shoot.
  2. Because the suspect is threatening imminent deadly physical force, the officer may shoot.
  3. The officer must first utilize his baton or pepper spray before shooting.
  4. Department guidelines prohibit officers from shooting at emotionally disturbed persons.

The correct answer is B, the officer may shoot. As Mullins stated, "By making such a blanket statement so early on in an investigation, Commissioner [James] O'Neill (and the Mayor) was, in essence, denying due process by supplanting public opinion and putting an expectation of results in the minds of the people who will ultimately investigate the case."

Commissioner O'Neill had stated, in part, "Our first obligation is to preserve life, not to take a life when it can be avoided." Perhaps the Commissioner should consider that that obligation also applies to preserving Sgt. Barry's life.

Ironically, another NYPD sergeant was forced to deploy his TASER at a later incident in order to control a violent subject. That subject ultimately went into cardiac arrest and died. As expected, the news media headlines were inflammatory, even though the sergeant's actions were appropriate. The TASER is the best less-than-lethal option for any officer to draw upon in dealing with volatile subjects, but unfortunately it can't be used to disarm unwarranted critic ignorance.

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