NYPD Killing of Saheed Vassell: What’s Known, What’s Not, and What Needs to Be
Cops fatally shot a mentally ill man they believed was holding a gun. It was actually a pipe. His Brooklyn community is outraged, and the mayor and police commissioner are mum.
A mentally ill man brandishing what 911 callers had described as a gun but who turned out to have been unarmed was shot and killed by NYPD officers on Wednesday, triggering anger in Brooklyn and drawing nationwide attention as the latest police killing of an unarmed black man.
Here’s what is known so far:
Around 4:40 p.m Wednesday, three 911 calls were made around about a man “threatening people with a silver gun” on the corner of Montgomery Street and Utica Avenue in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, according to the New York Times.
“There is a guy in a brown jacket walking around pointing–I don’t know... what is he pointing in people's face? They say it's a gun, it's silver,” one caller said, according to a transcript released by NYPD.
Five police officers, two uniformed and three plain clothed, arrived two minutes later, according to the New York Daily News. Police Chief Terence Monahan said officers found a man matching the descriptions given on the calls. The man “took a two-handed shooting stance and pointed an object at the approaching officers,” Monahan said.
Officers opened fire 20-30 seconds after encountering Vassell, an eyewitness told the Daily News. "Everything happened so fast,” he said. “The officers arrived and somebody said, 'He's got a gun.' Three officers fired 10 shots in total, police said.
Police refrained to answer questions about whether officers said anything to Vassell before firing–while witnesses offered conflicting accounts of the police encounter with Vassell before using lethal force.
Officers handcuffed Vassell, witnesses said. Police told the New York Post they began rendering aid to the man they’d shot and called an ambulance.
While Vassell was taken to the nearby Kings County Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead, the officers there when he was shot were assessed for minor injuries at New York-Presbyterian Brooklyn Methodist Hospital, a neighborhood and precinct away in Park Slope.
More than two dozen uninjured members of the NYPD — including commanding officers in white shirts, detectives in suits, plainclothes officers and uniformed ones along with at least one off-duty officer who'd come straight to the hospital — filled up its small triage room, talking with one another as they waited on their colleagues to receive treatment.
Asked what they were doing there by a Daily Beast reporter briefly placed in that room for an electrocardiogram on his way to the E.R., an officer said: “You’ll see it on the news at 11.”
A few minutes later, one of the white shirts assured a hospital official: "Don't worry. The press doesn't know we're here."
Police said they did not recover a gun from Vassell—he was holding a slim silver pipe with a knob at the end of it.
Police released stills from surrounding surveillance cameras, depicting a man they said was Vassell holding an object in his hand with his arm outstretched. They released video footage showing Vassell holding the pipe like a gun and holding it up to people. The video ends before police shoot Vassell.
According to NYPD’s Monahan, the officers were not wearing body cameras. The plain-clothed officers were part of NYPD’s “anti-crime unit” and the uniformed officers were part of NYPD’s “Strategic Response Group,” which is deployed to “hot spots of crime,” according to the Times.
The identities of the officers have not been released.
“There’s a lot more we need to know,” Mayor de Blasio said the day after the killing. “We are going to be as transparent as we can.”
Eric Vassell, Saheed’s father, told the Times that his son had “bipolar disorder and had been admitted to the hospital multiple times in recent years,” often times after he had brushes with the police. He told the Daily News that his son hadn’t “taken his medication for years.”
Vassell said he had never seen his son act in a way that depicted gun violence, but “we were always worried for him,” he told Times. “We would say should anything happen to him, we just have to do what we can do.”
Saheed had a 15-year-old son named Tyshawn.
“He’s always been there for me no matter what,” Tyshawn told the Daily News. “He’d always come check up on me, ask me if I’m good.”
According to community members, officers stationed in Crown Heights were aware of Vassell’s mental illness. “Every cop in this neighborhood knows him,” John Fuller, who said he was a friend of Vassell’s, told the Times. The NYPD categorized Vassell as “emotionally disturbed” in the past.
"I feel like I could kill them myself. That's how angry I am. They took one of my family,” Vassell’s aunt, Nora Ford, told ABC 7.
Vassell would often pick up sidewalk trash like lighters and empty bottles and play with them like toys, according to the Times.
“If we ask him to do our chores, he’d come and do it,” a local nail salon owner told the Times. Besides working as a welder, Vassell would often hang around the local barbershops and pick up odd jobs. He loved to dance and help people in the neighborhood, the Times reported.
An emotional crowd gathered at the scene of Vassell’s death on Wednesday night, yelling “murder” at police officers, according to the Times.
A few pointed out how Vassell was shot by cops 50 years to the day after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. “On the anniversary of the man who stood up for black people ... you’re going take a black man down with nine bullets,” Sherlan Smith, Vassell’s former partner told the Daily News.
There is a makeshift memorial at the site with signs reading, "Black Lives Matter" and "Rest in Power Saheed." At least three rallies are planned for Thursday afternoon in Crown Heights, including one where Al Sharpton and the mother of Eric Garner, a Staten Island man choked to death by police in 2014, will speak.