The Backstory On The DJ Henry Case | #schoolshooting

Ten years after 20-year-old Easton native Danroy “DJ” Henry was shot and killed in Pleasantville, N.Y., by a white police officer who never faced charges, calls to reopen the case have gained renewed energy in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd. A group of celebrities, including Rihanna, Jay-Z, and Kerry Washington, sent a letter to the Department of Justice requesting federal investigators take another look at the case.

WGBH News has covered the case extensively and is republishing here the four-part 2011 series by reporter Phillip Martin, to provide readers the necessary background and context to understand the current demands.

PART ONE — A Police Shooting; An Unarmed Black Victim

Originally published Oct. 17, 2011

In the living room of his parents’ home in Easton, Mass., Brandon Cox holds a weathered photo of his high school friend, Danroy “DJ” Henry. They met during Brandon’s freshman year. DJ was a sophomore. Their families meshed and the boys gelled over hip hop, old-school R&B, movies and especially football.

“Everything we did we kinda had that bond between us that not everybody really could understand,” said Cox.

After graduation, both headed to college. DJ settled on Pace University in Pleasantville, N.Y. in Westchester County. Brandon studied closer to home at Stonehill College. Both played football and competed against each other in a much-anticipated homecoming game October 16, 2010, said Cox.

“We ended up beating them pretty soundly. After the game we all came together and both our families went out to eat and it was just like being back home, just like high school again. All our families together, having a meal and just enjoying each other’s company,” Cox said.

That night, Brandon Cox went back to DJ’s rental unit, played video games and then headed out on the town. They ended up at Finnegan’s, a popular bar and grill located in a strip mall, between a Chinese restaurant and a bank.

“They had a DJ in the back and they had cleared the floor to make like a dance floor. He was introducing me to people he knew from school and all of that. I didn’t see the incident that caused them to shut everything down, but they were shutting it down and telling people to leave so we said, ‘Let’s get out of here,’” Brandon said.

DJ and four friends had arrived together in a Nissan Altima. He and Brandon Cox idled outside the bar waiting for the three remaining friends to pile in. Police had been called to the bar by the owner to quell a disturbance that, by all accounts, had nothing to do with the five boys. A crowd had gathered outside and police moved in to break it up. What happened next is to many still a very disturbing mystery.

Here’s how Cox explained it.

“So we’re in the car, and DJ had kind of got out to look for the guys. And when he came back he only came back with one of them, Desmond, so we were still in the car waiting for the other guys and we hear a loud tap on the window and it kind of startled us. The tap came again and we looked up to see that it was a police officer,” Cox said.

And the officer instructed the driver to move along, said Cox.

“So DJ put the car into drive and starts to drive away. And as we come around the corner an officer with his gun raised runs between two police cars that were on the side of us and runs in front of the vehicle with his gun raised and as DJ starts to slow down, he opens fire and then the car speeds back up because there are bullets coming through the front windshield. And I had felt something hit my arm and I wasn’t sure what it was and look out of the corner of my eye and I can see the police officer on the hood firing into the car from the hood of the car,” Cox said.

The officer who fired the shots was 33-year-old Aaron Hess, a former U.S. Marine who served seven years on the Pleasantville police force after an initial stint as a cop in Manhattan. Hess’s attorney, Mitchell Baker, said his client recalls the incident quite differently.

“Mr. Henry was driving his automobile. He was directed by Officer Hess to stop his automobile,” Baker said.

According to Baker, Hess had four choices. “If he went to the left he’d get hit. If he went to the right he’d get hit. If he went backwards, he’d get run over. So what his training taught him was to jump on the hood of the car. Mr. Henry was further directed to stop his car. He did not, and that’s when the shots were had,” Baker said.

Chaoes reigned in the aftermath of the shooting, as Pace University students and others rushed to help their friend DJ who, according to multiple witnesses, though severely wounded, had been pulled from the car and thrown to the ground by police.

“When we left our son about 6:00 p.m. Saturday evening, we hugged him we kissed him, we took a picture of him,” recalls Angella Henry, DJ Henry’s mom. “When we saw him 12 hours later, he had scratches and bruises on his face that don’t comport with a gunshot wound to the chest. So we know he was treated poorly.”

Angella Henry and her husband Danroy Henry Sr. were notified of their son’s death by two Easton, Mass. police officers, who arrived at their door in the early morning hours. They rushed to Westchester County Medical Center where Brandon Cox’s mother Donna and stepfather Tommy Parks were waiting. Also at the hospital was Officer Aaron Hess, whose knee had been injured during the incident. Dozens of fellow officers were milling around his room, said Cox’s father, Tommy Parks.

“He seemed to be in good spirits. He was lifted up off of what I believe was a wheel chair and he lifted up to talk to an officer. He just didn’t seem bothered the way that we were. We were in total shock,” Parks said.

Four months later, in February 2011, a grand jury did not indict Officer Hess. The Westchester District Attorney’s office released a statement that read the grand jury “found there was no reasonable cause to vote an indictment.”

In the summer of 2011, hip-hop stars Kanye West and Jay-Z released the chart-topping album “Watch The Throne.” The centerpiece of the album is the song “Murder To Excellence,” dedicated to Henry.

In April, Hess received an award as Policeman of the Year from the Pleasantville Police Benevolent Association.

And, for much of the past 12 months, questions have been raised about the case and about other cases. The legal process, gathering evidence, the political relationships between the district attorney and the local police force, and the overall treatment of blacks by white officers.

It raises questions about police training and responses to perceived danger, and whether such perceptions of danger are colored by race. Aaron Hess is white. Danroy Henry black.

PART 2 — What’s Race Got To Do With It?

Originally published Oct. 18, 2011

A grand jury did not proceed with a case against Officer Aaron Hess in the shooting death of Danroy “DJ” Henry. But some continued to question the role of race in Henry’s death — especially after a retired MBTA worker named Eurie Stamps was shot by a police officer in January 2011.

On October 17, 2010, at 1:19 a.m., the owner of a popular nightspot in the small town of Mount Pleasant, N.Y., in an area called Thornwood, called to report a disturbance. Within minutes of that call, a young Massachusetts man who had nothing to do with the disturbance itself was shot dead by a policeman, Officer Aaron Hess.

Mt. Pleasant Police Chief Louis Alagno held a press conference on October 18, 2010. He explained the scenario thus: “Officer Hess ended up on the hood of the vehicle as it accelerated in the fire lane. At some point in time Officer Hess drew his pistol and fired into the vehicle.”

Within days, and before the official autopsy was released, someone within local law enforcement leaked a preliminary report that concluded that Henry had been impaired.

The Westchester County medical examiner’s office found that Henry’s blood-alcohol level was 0.13 percent. According to the New York State Police website, a driver is legally intoxicated if his or her blood alcohol concentration is 0.08 percent or greater.

Henry and his family had started the night at a restaurant, and hours later he showed up at Finnegans Grill with friends. “He went to the bar and didn’t drink there as far as we know,” said Mitchell Baker, Hess’s attorney. “But he had this terrible tragic accident with Officer Hess and he was intoxicated when that occurred.”

Attorney and Harvard Professor Charles Ogletree, who represents Henry’s friend Brendan Cox, was incredulous. He thought that the information was a diversion from the main facts of the case. He said even if Henry had been drinking, and there was no real evidence that he was, “what does that have to do with an officer stepping into the aisle? It’s not like he went after an officer in a car. He got shot and he happened to be under the influence of alcohol. That’s not a crime,” Ogletree said. “I think this is what we call a red herring.”

Whether Henry was drunk and whether he accelerated the car, along with a host of other considerations, became key issues during a grand jury review that heard from 85 witnesses and resulted in no indictment. The police version of what happened stood, and the case was closed.

But many questions remained open, including the sensitive role of race and its impact on law enforcement. And not just in the case of Danroy Henry Jr.

On January 4, 2011, Eurie Stamps of Framingham, Mass., a 68-year-old retired MBTA worker, went shopping around twilight with his wife, Norma Bushfan-Stamps. They were in their bedroom watching a basketball game later that night — but unbeknownst to them, the Framingham police were just outside conducting a drug stakeout. Around 12:00 a.m. on January 5, they spotted their primary suspect walking along the street with friends: Joseph Bushfan, 20, Stamps’ stepson.

First the police apprehended Bushfan. Then they raided the house, forcing the couple and a 20-year-old cousin to the floor. Stamps was facedown when Officer Paul Duncan’s semi-automatic rifle went off. Stamps was pronounced dead later that day.

Duncan said he tripped as he was attempting to handcuff Stamps. The Middlesex District Attorney investigation determined it was an accident.

Lawyer Anthony Tarricone, who represented both the Bushfan and Stamp families, didn’t buy it.

“The story, frankly, has a patina of implausibility,” Tarricone said. “There are many unanswered questions. But here, according to the district attorney’s investigation, a member of this elite, trained SWAT team’s gun was discharged and shot Mr. Stamps when he was on the ground, face down, and [Duncan] stumbled and fell. It just doesn’t make any sense.”

Middlesex District Attorney Gerad Leone conducted the criminal investigation of the case. He told WGBH that it was thorough and included numerous indirect and eyewitness interviews. He emphasized, however, that the investigation only covered criminal offenses.

“We look at whether negligence occurred, whether there was recklessness, but we do so in the context of whether a crime was committed. That’s not to say that there may not be breaches of protocol, of policy — of things that might even amount to be civil negligence,” Leone said.

Ogletree said he knew Stamps, whom he described as a “gentle giant, a wonderful man. . . . It’s a tragedy beyond measure.” He was convinced that race played a role in both the Eurie Stamps and the DJ Henry cases.

But others directly involved in both cases are not as sure. Stamps’ best friend, Dennis Dotten of Cambridge, said, “It may have had something to do with the fact that Eurie was a big guy. He’s a big black man. They may have been intimidated by his size.”

DJ Henry’s mother, Angella, said, I can’t really speculate. I really don’t know. I believe race plays a part, but I can’t say for sure what Aaron Hess’ motives were.”

Brandon Cox’s mother, Boston teacher Donna Parks, was asked if she thought race played a role in the shooting of DJ Henry. “Initially I don’t think it did,” she said. But she wondered about the response of Hess after the shooting, when people approached the officer and asked to help Henry: “The police officer said, ‘They’re just thugs.’ . . . What would make him think that he was a thug?”

Ogletree, who has written several books on racial profiling, was adamant that it is a race issue. “DJ Henry is important because there is a history of racial profiling against black and Latino men. And DJ Henry is a classic case,” he said.

He compared the situation to that of a hypothetical “Jamal Johnson” caricature. “If he were Jamal Johnson, who had a record for drugs, who had been locked up before, no one would have heard about this case. But he’s DJ Henry. The families are like the Huxtables in ‘The Cosby Show.’ And the reality is we shouldn’t let it happen to Jamal and we certainly are not going to let it happen to DJ Henry and not be addressed.”

The families of Henry and Cox have turned to the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division to seek injunctive relief against the Westchester County Police. They have made a demand for training that focuses as much on race relations as on the proper uses of firearms and deadly force.

PART 3 — What’s Wrong With Police Training?

Originally published Oct. 19, 2011

Some police experts say that police forces around the country—from Westchester County, N.Y., where DJ Henry was killed, to Los Angeles, which has had its own share of questionable police shootings over the years — need to train officers to de-escalate conflicts and increase sensitivity to racial stereotypes.

Jack Cole has 27 years of service with the New Jersey State Police. He said policing in that state had a history of troubled race relations. “If you read anything about police you know that if we didn’t create racial profiling, we certainly raised it to a high art form,” he said. In 1998, the New Jersey State Police was investigated by the U.S. Justice Department. The department concluded that the state had engaged in a pattern and practice of flagrant and massive civil rights violations.

“My superintendent called in all of our best racial profilers from the toll roads and the interstate roads and brought them down to headquarters, and they made one unit out of them called the Interdiction Unit,” said Cole. “You didn’t even have to be a racist cop to participate in this because this myth gets created. Cops stop mainly black people. Because they stop mainly black people, it’s mainly black people that get arrested. It’s self-perpetuating.”

Cole believes that racially charged shootings like those of DJ Henry in Westchester County and Eurie Stamps in Framingham, Mass., occur because police are trained to fight an enemy. Officers’ education is “training them to go to war instead of training them to be community policemen,” Cole said.

Patti DeRosa, a Boston-area race relations trainer whose clients include Massachusetts police departments, does an exercise with cops where she hands out photos of unknown people of various skin colors and ethnicities.

“I just say, ‘Pretend you’re a casting director. I want you to cast this person in a movie. What role do you think they would be believable in by the public?’” she said.

Asians are often cast as computer whizzes or martial artists and Latinos as drug lords. Yet, DeRosa said, most police and cadets are still quick to say they have no prejudices.

“Most offense happens from internalized stereotypes. The officers in their hearts may truly believe this had nothing to do with it, and in fact may not want race to have anything to do with it. That doesn’t mean that that overreaction doesn’t get triggered because of those stereotypes. It’s like pollution in the air, these biases. We all inhale them,” she said.

DeRosa cited the DJ Henry police shooting as an example. “I challenge anyone to come up with a story of black police officers accidentally shooting a white kid,” she said. “We even hear about black officers being shot at in the line of duty and it’s white officers shooting black officers. You don’t hear about the inverse. So there’s some dynamic of the stereotype that kicks in.”

Mabel Lam, a Massachusetts police psychologist, agreed with Cole and DeRosa that training is a problem.

“They’re trained to shoot or be shot at,” she said. “And so sometimes they may overreact.”

Lam thought psychologists could make a difference by conducting screening to identify the police candidates and current officers “who are so-called not suitable.”

Many law enforcers themselves have come to believe that police training in general must be altered to increase sensitivities and foster better relations between the police and people of color. The police commissioner and the district attorney for Westchester County, N.Y., declined to comment for this story on any aspect of the DJ Henry case. But police departments across the Northeast seem well aware of the DJ Henry controversy.

Dan Zivkovich is executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Police Training Committee. He said Massachusetts’ six-month, 800-hour training period for new police officers was created to prevent the very kind of situation that may have led to the death of DJ Henry, whose family lives in Easton, Mass., about 25 miles from Boston.

“No officer wants to use deadly force because the consequences are far-reaching. It’s not just the person who has died and it’s not just their family. It impacts officers and their families as well,” he said.

The trainers try to set the tone of these discussions by emphasizing the country’s founding values. Zivkovich said, “We let them know that the Constitution was built to constrain police because our forefathers had a distrust for police-type actions because of the way they’d been treated.”

Tommy Parks is a ninth-grade U.S. history teacher in the Boston Public Schools. He teaches his students the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. He is also the stepfather of Brandon Cox, who was sitting in the front passenger seat of the car when Officer Hess opened fire on DJ Henry. Cox was wounded. Parks’ students have followed the case closely.

“I tell them the Constitution is the best thing walking, and they know they have all these rights that are guaranteed under the law. But they still can’t figure out how do your rights get usurped or violated when you have so many guarantees,” Parks said. And he doesn’t have an answer for them. “That part sort of leaves me in a quandary because you know that Brandon and DJ didn’t get equal treatment. That’s not how you treat everyday citizens and it’s not how you treat human beings,” he said.

“What the DJ Henry incident confirms is if you’re a person of color you are endangered when you dispute a police officer’s command,“ said Lisa Thurau. She is the executive director of Strategies for Youth, which trains police nationwide how to deal effectively with young people, especially kids of color.

She said that police are in a unique position because their mistakes have heavy consequences. Therefore, she said, “I would think that it’s time for some police academies to reconsider the amount of time spent in physical tactical performance duties and increase the amount of time spent in communication and de-escalation efforts.”

Massachusetts law enforcement officials are listening.

Zivkovich said, “What we’ve recognized is that in the past we’ve mis-guided our officers because we focused too much on power and authority and not focused enough on legitimacy, cooperation, trust and respect. And so in progress right now are new curricula to really try to drive this home. The second part to that is looking for the people who can carry this forward.”

How these lessons are applied will be the true test of the efficacy of police hiring, training and procedures in the aftermath of the shooting death of DJ Henry.

CODA: PART 4 — Waiting For The Justice Department

Originally published Oct. 21, 2011

In February 2011, when a New York grand jury did not indict anyone involved in the shooting death of DJ Henry, Henry’s family called for a federal investigation.

Assistant U.S. Attorney General Thomas Perez heads the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.

“When these shootings occur, oftentimes you will have a local investigation and we monitor that investigation very carefully, and at the conclusion of that we will make a judgment as to whether or not the facts support a criminal civil rights prosecution,” Perez said.

When the division reviews a case, the team works with a series of experts that often include former police chiefs, Perez said. “So we can go in, analyze training policy and procedures, identify challenges and weaknesses, and correct them. We are able to play a very constructive role because our teams that conduct these reviews are teams that include not only lawyers but experts in effective policing.”

It is not known when the Justice Department will offer its opinion.

The Henry family has moved ahead with a $120 million civil lawsuit against two police forces in New York.

Editor’s note: The Justice Department ultimately declined to bring a case against Hess, but the family reached a $6 million settlement with Hess and Pleasantville in 2016.

Aaron Hess, the officer who shot and killed Henry, recently sued a liquor store that he alleges sold alcohol to the underage football player. He claims it was alcohol that led to the incident.

Hess was also injured that night. His lawyer Mitchell Baker claimed the officer’s life had been turned “upside down” since the shooting.

“His knee is terribly injured. Several broken bones, broken kneecaps, torn ligaments, tendons. He has been out of work for eight months,” Mitchell said. Hess is undergoing rehabilitation; his ability to return to police work is in doubt.

In the broader culture, DJ Henry case has become a cause célèbre, inspiring a tribute from hip-hop artists Kanye West and Jay-Z, and postings on YouTube and Facebook.

His hometown of Easton, Mass. has just named a sports field after him and his family has established the DJ Henry Dream Fund, a nonprofit providing resources for promising young athletes.

Angella Henry said she thinks of her son all the time.

“I imagine him with us at the dinner table, coming to church with us, coming out of his room in the morning,” she said, her voice shaking. “I still think he’ll call at night. I think he’ll be home. There’s not a day that goes by where we don’t imagine him here.”


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