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After New York Shooting, Police Say Officials Are Prejudging Cops


When a New York police sergeant shot and killed a mentally ill woman last month, civic leaders responded quickly - very quickly. Within 24 hours, the mayor condemned the shooting, and the officer was stripped of his badge and gun. As NPR's Martin Kaste reports, the speed of that response has angered police around the country who say it's part of a new trend to blame cops first.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: The basic facts are these - 66-year-old Deborah Danner was acting erratically. A neighbor called the police. And when she tried to swing a baseball bat at an officer, she was shot. But there's always more to cases like this. You need timelines, call histories, witness testimony - and yet, on the very next day, the New York police commissioner sounded as if he'd already reached a conclusion.


JAMES O'NEILL: That's not how it's supposed to go. That's not how we train. Our first obligation is to preserve life, not to take a life. It can be avoided.

KASTE: Commissioner James O'Neill said the sergeant should have followed policies about containing and calming people in situations like this. But there are also some reports that the sergeant did try to de-escalate things at first. Plus, NYPD officers are trained to shoot people who come at them with bats. At a minimum, this incident was complicated. But that's not how O'Neill described it.


O'NEILL: What is clear in this one instance - we failed.

KASTE: Those words - we failed - provoked a furious response from Ed Mullins. He's the head of the sergeants union.

ED MULLINS: How can you create the presumption of guilt if the investigation was not completed yet?

KASTE: Mullins sees the situation as a sign of the times nationally. Since Ferguson, he says, politicians have become quicker to condemn controversial police shootings.

MULLINS: They're concerned for themselves. And their theory is, well, if I can prejudge this and say that there's wrongdoing, I can keep the community at bay.

KASTE: Mullins is reacting to statements like this. This is Mayor Bill de Blasio, also just one day after the shooting, talking about why New Yorkers should not lose faith in the police.


MAYOR BILL DE BLASIO: One reason I think people should have some faith right now is because our police commissioner came forward immediately and told the people of the city exactly what he believed happened and exactly how wrong it was.

KASTE: It is a delicate balancing act for mayors and chiefs, and it's one that used to tilt the other way. People used to complain about city officials being too quick to defend cops in these situations, says Pierce Murphy. He oversees police misconduct investigations in Seattle. He says officials are under a lot of pressure to comment on these shootings, but they should never prejudge one in either direction.

PIERCE MURPHY: And I think there are things that public officials can say - for instance, I'm disturbed by what I've learned so far, and I guarantee the public that a swift and thorough investigation will be completed. Statements like that, indicating that the public official takes it seriously.

KASTE: But that might not work anymore, just the promise of a thorough investigation. There's a certain cynicism about investigations today - that they're a way to drag things out and bury evidence of a bad shooting indefinitely. Lori Lightfoot says the wait-and-see message doesn't cut it today.

LORI LIGHTFOOT: The old way of doing it, which is we're not going to release anything until we've got all the facts tied down with a bow - that's just not going to work.

KASTE: Lightfoot is president of the Chicago Police Board and a leader of the effort to reform police oversight there. She says cities can no longer withhold what they know about a controversial shooting.

LIGHTFOOT: The absence of information - there are things that happen with that. There are urban myths. There are perceptions that are going to come and fill in that void when the facts aren't out there.

KASTE: Lightfoot calls this the new normal, and she agrees that it's tough for elected officials now to give the public the information it wants without appearing to prejudge an officer and alienate a whole department's rank and file.

Martin Kaste, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.