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.
Vassell’s father, Eric Vassell, told the New York Daily News that his son was bipolar and had struggled with the disorder for years.
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.
— Chief Terence Monahan (@NYPDChiefofDept) April 4, 2018
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.
New video and 911 call transcript excerpts from yesterday’s police involved shooting in #Brooklyn. NYPD received several calls from neighborhood residents about a man pointing a gun at people on the street.
— NYPD NEWS (@NYPDnews) April 5, 2018
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.
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.