THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Yvonne Abraham

Award adds new injustice

By Yvonne Abraham
Globe Columnist / April 14, 2011

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Does Pleasantville, N.Y., boast the most insensitive police officers in the country?

Or just some of the dumbest?

Those are the two choices, given the news you’ve probably heard: The man who shot Easton native Danroy Henry Jr. to death last fall has just been named Officer of the Year by the police union in the Westchester village.

Henry, a Pace University football player, was shot by Officer Aaron Hess early on Oct. 17. Police say Henry refused to stop his car when asked, hitting Hess and injuring him. They say the police officer then fired from atop the car’s hood because he believed his life was in danger.

Henry’s friends say he was following police instructions to move his car out of a fire lane, and that Hess appeared from nowhere, jumped onto the hood, and started shooting. They say police didn’t help a wounded Henry fast enough.

A grand jury did not indict the police officer, but the events of that night remain hotly disputed. Henry’s parents have brought a civil suit against the police department, and the US Department of Justice is investigating for possible civil rights violations. (Henry and his friends are black, the police officers white.)

Against this contentious backdrop, the union honored Officer Hess last Friday night.

“He was very thankful and very touched by the award,’’ union chief Matthew Listwan told website Pleasantville Patch. “It was almost like a wedding for him, with all the [officers] thanking him.’’

It’s no surprise the union has stood behind Hess. That’s pretty typical in these situations. And though there are many fine, dedicated, and compassionate police officers, blockheadedness and insensitivity are often hallmarks of their unions’ rhetoric — check out Pax Centurion, the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association newsletter, if you’re in any doubt.

But Officer of the Year? Pleasantville has put itself in another league with that one.

No matter whose version you believe, the events of that October night are achingly tragic. Because of a fatal error by the officer, or by Henry, a promising 20-year-old is dead. The mother, father, sister, and brother he called every day must find a way to go on. The officer who killed Henry — who had never used his gun on the job before — must live with memories of that night for the rest of his life.

Given all of that, what would move the union to add to the family’s already unbearable pain?

Sure, we live in ugly times, where death and grief protect no one from hurtfulness. Members of the lunatic Westboro Baptist Church defile decency at soldiers’ funerals. A torrent of hard-hearted online chatter often attends tragedies, especially when they involve young black men. But you’d hope that the men and women who swear to serve and protect would be leagues above all of that.

Listwan finally responded to the uproar over the union honor last night, saying he hadn’t meant to hurt the Henrys, and that the award was not meant to be made public. Too late.

The saddest part about all of this is that the Henrys aren’t even surprised by it.

“From the beginning, we have been treated with disrespect,’’ Danroy Henry’s mother, Angella, said, speaking from her Easton home yesterday. She has always thought well of police officers; some are members of her family. She worries Pleasantville makes them all look bad.

“If I lived in Westchester County, I would move away,’’ she said. “I would be fearful of having children there, knowing that if an officer kills someone he will get an award.’’

I’d at least avoid Pleasantville, where it’s now apparent that local police are either willing to spit in the eyes of a grieving family, or are simply clueless about the impact of their actions. I can’t decide which is worse.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at abraham@globe.com