Police Commissioner James O’Neill says the NYPD “failed” in the fatal shooting of 66 year old Deborah Danner. This is undeniable, since Sergeant Hugh Barry “failed” to follow police procedure for dealing with emotionally disturbed people. It is also the case, however, that our flawed and fractured mental health system “failed” Ms. Danner.
At the other end of his gun, Sergeant Barry saw a naked, emotionally disturbed, black woman with a bat. That was his final impression of Deborah Danner and, as a consequence of her tragic death, how society will remember her. But, I knew Deborah when she was a thriving member of the Fountain House community for 10 years between 2003 and 2013. She had her ups and downs as people with schizophrenia often do. But during her time in our community-based mental health treatment program, she made meaningful contributions. Through Fountain House, she obtained transitional employment at a law-firm and went back to school with scholarships she earned. She even pursued her artistic interests and took classes in water colors. On her resume, Deborah describes herself as a “cooperative team player who enjoys working with people.” That seems tragically ironic now, but it is an utterly accurate description of who she was, when she was well.
Sadly, after enjoying several years of stability at Fountain House, Deborah switched the medications for her illness. Her health declined and her attendance at Fountain House – which is an entirely voluntary program – dwindled.
Around this same time, the City cut almost half a million dollars from Fountain House’s budget to operate an outreach program that would have allowed us to call and visit Deborah and, hopefully, reconnect her with our community. We could never have obligated her to come back, because that is not what Fountain House does. However, Assertive Community Treatment (ACT) is an example of a program that can intervene in the lives of people with serious mental illness – in a more aggressive way.
Assertive Community Treatment (ACT) teams provide treatment, rehabilitation and support services to individuals in their homes whose needs have not been met in more traditional mental health settings. As noted in all of the articles about this tragic incident, Deborah had been frequently hospitalized for her illness, was refusing to take her medication and had been involved in several similar disturbance calls responded to by the NYPD. She clearly would have benefited from interventions by an ACT team.
Sargent Barry was an eight year veteran of the NYPD. Had he participated in the Police Crisis Intervention Team Program (CIT), which offers training to the police on how to deal with cases like these, he may have acted differently in Deborah’s apartment. We will never know. What we do know from experience, however, is that if Deborah had still been connected to a community-based mental health program like Fountain House, or had ACT teams visited her in her home, she would be alive today. She may even have been working, enrolled in school and realizing the dreams, goals and aspirations that all people, including those with serious mental illness, hold for themselves.
This is indeed a failure – a collective failure - and one in which I, as the President of a mental health program, share a certain sense of culpability. Deborah did not live in vain and, therefore, she must not die in vain. Her death must be a call to action to repair a flawed and fractured mental health system.
Kenneth J. Dudek, MSW is the President of Fountain House in New York City. He has worked in community mental health for more than 40 years.