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Police officers stand behind a cordon tape at the scene where New York police officers shot to death a black man who pointed a metal pipe at them, in the borough of Brooklyn, New York, U.S., April 4, 2018, in this picture obtained from social media. Instagram @johnnyg1rl/via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. MANDATORY CREDIT.NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES Mandatory Credit @johnnyg1rl TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RC1485F675F0

New York police fatally shoot man after mistaking metal pipe for gun

New York police officers fatally shot a black man Wednesday after they received reports that he was threatening people in Brooklyn with a gun. But investigators later found a metal pipe — not a gun — at the scene, angering residents who say the man was well-known in the neighborhood and shouldn’t have been shot.

Police later identified the 34-year-old as Saheed Vassell, a known figure in the Crown Heights neighborhood by both residents and the authorities, according to The New York Times, who added that the NYPD “had encountered the man before and classified him as emotionally disturbed.”

Who was the victim?
Vassell, who was born in Jamaica, came to the U.S. when he was a child, the Times reported; he had a 15-year-old son.

Photo of Saheed Vassell via Facebook

Photo of Saheed Vassell via Facebook

Vassell’s father, Eric Vassell, told the New York Daily News that his son was bipolar and had struggled with the disorder for years.

What happened?

At 4:40 p.m. local time Wednesday, authorities received multiple 911 calls, reporting that a man was brandishing a firearm. He was described as a black man wearing a brown jacket and pointing a “silver firearm at people” on the street, NYPD Chief Terence Monahan told reporters in a brief update hours after the shooting. Officers approached Vassell, who matched the description provided in the 911 calls, Monahan said.

On Thursday, New York police released surveillance footage that showed the suspect pointing an object to at least three different people in the neighborhood before officers arrived.

“There’s a guy walking around the street. He look like he’s crazy, but he’s pointing something at people that looks like a gun, and he’s like popping it as if like if he’s pulling a trigger,” according to a transcript excerpt of one of the 911 calls provided by police.

The suspect then “took a two-handed shooting stance” and pointed an object at five responding officers — three of whom were in plain clothes, and two of whom were in uniform — the chief said, holding up a blurry still image of the suspect in that position, pulled from surveillance cameras nearby.

Photo of the metal pipe that the suspect was carrying. Image provided by the NYPD

Photo of the metal pipe that the suspect was carrying. Image provided by the NYPD

Surveillance video still provided by NYPD

Surveillance video still provided by NYPD

Four of the five officers then opened fire, shooting a total of 10 rounds. It’s not clear how many of those shots struck Vassell. Officers immediately rendered aid, Monahan said, and the suspect was transported to a local hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

After the shooting, investigators found a “pipe with some sort of knob at the end,” the chief said, holding another image during the briefing.

When asked about body cameras, Monahan said none of the officers were wearing cameras.

What the community is saying

Many of the neighborhood’s residents arrived at the police tape to air their frustrations over the shooting. Vassell’s aunt Nora Ford visited the scene Thursday. “I just want to touch the blood where he died,” she told the Daily News. “I bet if he was a white kid, they wouldn’t fire a shot at him like that.”

Kacey Byczek said in a Facebook post that the shooting happened a few blocks from her home.

“I did not know Saheed Vassell well by any stretch of the imagination, but I have said hello to him nearly every day since moving to this neighborhood several years ago,” she wrote. “In a city that is so often anonymous, he was my neighbor — and I would guess a lot of southeast Crown Heights feels the same.”

Why it matters

Some elements of Wednesday’s shooting echo the fatal March 18 shooting of Stephon Clark, a 22-year-old unarmed black man who was also believed by officers to be holding a gun. After Sacramento, California, officers opened fire on Clark, it was later discovered that he was holding a cell phone, not a gun.

An independent autopsy commissioned by Clark’s family found eight gunshot wounds on his body, most of the bullets entering through his back and side. The shooting has sparked protests throughout the city, and the family is expected to file a wrongful death lawsuit against the department.

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