Officer who shot Easton man honored

Award vexes family of slain student, 20

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By Milton J. Valencia
Globe Staff / April 14, 2011

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Since the controversial police shooting of Pace University student Danroy “DJ’’ Henry Jr. in New York in October, his family has been working to memorialize his name with fund-raisers and scholarships.

On Friday, police in Pleasantville, N.Y., had their own event: The officer who shot and killed Henry was named Officer of the Year during an annual awards ceremony, outraging Henry’s family.

“For us, it speaks to the arrogance that has been on display from the beginning here,’’ said Henry’s father, Danroy Henry Sr. of Easton, in an interview yesterday.

He said the award was particularly troubling because the shooting remains under investigation by the US Department of Justice’s civil rights division.

“I think there’s a view that they’re operating somehow above the law and above reproach, and so we’re just going to be who we are,’’ Henry said. “At the end of the day, it’s what the facts and truth and evidence says.’’

About 20 officers — there are 23 in the department — gathered to recognize the officer, Aaron Hess, for “all he went through and for his hard work,’’ Matthew Listwan, the president of the Pleasantville Police Benevolent Association, told the local affiliate of Patch, a news website.

Listwan released a statement yesterday saying the award was not meant to be publicized.

“The PBA did not seek to create a public spectacle of this award . . . or elicit media attention or additional public support for Aaron Hess, or to offend the Henry family, whose continuing grief is obvious and understandable,’’ the statement said.

The award, the statement said, was “an expression of support for the dignified and professional manner in which Officer Hess has conducted himself throughout this ordeal, and most particularly, the very difficult aftermath of this tragic incident.’’

The Henry family’s feud with the police department is the latest of several clashes that have only emboldened the family to call for independent investigations into the shooting, arguing that local police investigators have an inherent conflict of interest in the case.

DJ Henry, a 20-year-old from Easton who played football at Pace University in Pleasantville, was shot and killed on Oct. 17 while celebrating after a homecoming game.

Though two officers used their weapons, the fatal shots were believed to have been fired by Hess.

Conflicting accounts of the shooting have emerged.

Local police reported that Hess fired after Henry drove his car at him, which followed him hitting another officer with the vehicle. The collision forced Hess up onto the hood, and then to the ground, police said, and the car eventually crashed.

But eyewitnesses have told investigators for the Henry family that Henry had driven off only because he was told to by an officer, and that Hess had run in front of the car ordering it to stop.

The witnesses, including occupants of the car, told investigators that Henry tried to stop but did not have time, and that Hess jumped on top of the hood and started firing.

One of the car’s occupants, Henry’s long-time friend Brandon Cox, was also struck by a bullet. Cox provided the account to investigators.

Hess underwent knee surgery. The other officer who was allegedly hit by the car was not injured.

The officers and dozens of others had responded to a melee in a parking lot outside a bar where students had been celebrating the game against Stonehill College.

The family was also infuriated by the anonymous leak of blood tests that showed that at the time of the shooting, Henry had a blood alcohol content higher than allowed under the state’s driving laws. Family members, still doubting that the tests proved Henry was drunk, questioned whether they justified the reports that Hess jumped in front of the car and fired his weapon.

The family argued the leak was meant to taint Henry and was proof of the department’s inability to conduct an impartial investigation.

Henry family members and their lawyer, Michael Sussman, had called for a thorough, independent investigation, and were outraged in February when the local district attorney’s office announced that it would not bring charges in the case.

Sussman questioned the integrity of the investigation because law enforcement officials close to Pleasantville police were involved.

The Department of Justice then announced it would conduct its own civil rights inquiry. That review is pending.

Sussman has also initiated a federal civil rights lawsuit against the police and Hess.

“I think there’s a deep concern with this case . . . and that concern will grow as the actual facts come out,’’ Sussman said. “The Henry family is in this for the long haul; they’re not going to be deterred by this insult, however great this insult.’’

Sussman also questioned how Hess could be named Officer of the Year after violating department protocol by firing at a moving car and jumping on the hood.

“Does an individual like that normally get such an award? I’ve never heard of that before,’’ Sussman said.

Henry’s mother, Angella Henry said yesterday that “I’m glad the world gets to see the arrogance we’ve been dealing with since Oct. 17, from the district attorney’s office all the way to the police benevolent association.

“For us, it’s not a surprise,’’ she said. “A disappointment, but not a surprise.’’

Milton Valencia can be reached at