Police fatally shot an unarmed man in Brooklyn on Wednesday after mistaking a metal pipe he was holding for a gun, authorities said. The death of Saheed Vassell, 34, provoked hours of emotionally charged protests and has prompted the New York state attorney general to open an investigation.
Around 4:40 p.m. Wednesday, police received several 911 calls reporting a black man in a brown jacket pointing what was “described as a silver firearm” at people on the street in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, said Terence Monahan, the New York Police Department’s chief of department.
“There’s a guy walking around the street,” one caller said, according to partial transcripts of some of the 911 calls police released Thursday. “He looks 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 the trigger.”
Five officers — three in plainclothes and two in uniform — responded to the scene at Utica Avenue and Montgomery Street, Monahan said.
When they arrived, they saw Vassell “brandishing what [appeared] to be a firearm, pointing it at people,” he said.
“The suspect then took a two-handed shooting stance and pointed an object at the approaching officers,” Monahan said.
Four of the officers opened fire on Vassell and struck him several times, police said. In all, three plainclothes officers and one uniformed officer fired 10 rounds among them, Monahan said.
According to Monahan, the officers immediately rendered medical aid to Vassell, who was taken to a hospital and pronounced dead.
Monahan held up an image of the scene captured seconds before the officers approached Vassell, and said surveillance video along the street corroborated the officers’ account of what happened. None of the officers was wearing body cameras, he said.
The object that Vassell was holding wound up being “a metal pipe with some sort of knob on the end of it,” Monahan said.
In surveillance footage released by police Thursday afternoon, Vassell could be seen walking along the sidewalk and suddenly using one hand to point the pipe toward at least three passersby, as if it was a gun.
In one video clip, Vassell is seen standing on a street corner, facing the intersection, and holding the pipe with both hands outstretched. It was then that officers opened fire on him, police said.
Vassell lived just around the corner from where the shooting took place. Many of Vassell’s family members and neighbors told local reporters that he had bipolar disorder and was well known to the area’s police and shopkeepers, one of whom described the mentally ill man as “harmless.”
Carlene Johnson was walking south from the Utica Avenue subway stop, on her way to a hair appointment, when she heard a rapid succession of gunshots.
“I was at the corner there crossing the street, and I hear boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom!” Johnson told The Washington Post. “All of a sudden, there was cops from all over. Huge crowd. I was confused. I was not sure if it was guys shooting at each other until after maybe five minutes. … It was chaos.”
A stylist at Glamours Beauty Salon, just across the street from where the shooting took place, told The Post that Vassell was known to be mentally ill. The young man often wandered the block and would regularly help push up the shutters for the shop in the mornings for a small tip, she said.
“Everybody knows him, and everybody knows he’s sick,” the stylist, who asked to be identified by only her first name, Annette, said. “I guess I understand when the police said they thought it was a gun. Just like everybody thought it was a gun. It’s really sad.”
Vassell’s father, Eric Vassell, told the New York Times that his son, a welder, had moved to the United States from Jamaica when he was 6. Saheed Vassell had bipolar disorder and had been hospitalized several times in recent years, the elder Vassell told the newspaper.
He was a fixture in the neighborhood — and his mental illness was widely known to residents and police, the Times reported, according to interviews with multiple residents.
“Every cop in this neighborhood knows him,” John Fuller told the newspaper.
On Thursday morning, Vassell’s grief-stricken aunt, Nora Ford, went to the corner where her nephew was shot so she could “touch the blood where he died,” the New York Daily News reported.
“It’s a piece of iron and they kill him for a piece of iron,” Ford told the newspaper. “I bet if he was a white kid, they wouldn’t fire a shot at him like that.”
Jaccbot Hinds, 40, told the Daily News that he witnessed the shooting and said officers did not warn Vassell before opening fire.
“They just hopped out of the car,” Hinds told the newspaper. “It’s almost like they did a hit. They didn’t say please. They didn’t say put your hands up, nothing.”
Police on Wednesday did not address whether they gave Vassell any warnings. NYPD representatives did not immediately respond to questions sent by email Thursday morning.
The shooting drew an angry crowd Wednesday night to the busy Crown Heights intersection to confront about a dozen additional police officers who had arrived at the scene.
“It’s not a crime scene! You murdered him!” a woman can be heard screaming, hoarsely, between expletives. “A young man in his own community, shot down — yet again!”
“Ten times?” another man demanded, referring to the number of rounds reportedly fired. “For what?”
On Thursday, New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced that he had opened an investigation into Vassell’s death.
“We’re committed to conducting an independent, comprehensive, and fair investigation,” Schneiderman spokeswoman Amy Spitalnick said in an email. “As a reminder, [the state attorney general’s office oversees] investigations into incidents where unarmed civilians die during interactions with police, or incidents where there is significant question as to whether the civilian was armed and dangerous.”
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio called the shooting “a tragedy by any measure,” but did not blame police, the Associated Press reported. Police would release 911 calls and any video footage, he added.
The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund expressed outrage over Vassell’s death Thursday and demanded that New York police release all surveillance footage they had of the shooting. The civil rights group noted that Vassell’s death came nearly two years after both de Blasio and NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill condemned the police shooting of Deborah Danner, an “emotionally disturbed” woman in the Bronx.
“We’re left wondering what’s changed as NYPD officers have once again killed an innocent New Yorker struggling with mental health issues,” Sherrilyn Ifill, the group’s president, said in a statement. “Mr. Vassell and his mental health issues were reportedly well-known to the Crown Heights community and NYPD officers.”
Vassell’s death also comes amid heightened tensions nationwide regarding police accountability. On March 18, Sacramento police killed 22-year-old Stephon Clark as they responded to reports of a vandal in a neighborhood. Clark was shot eight times, mostly in the back, as he ran to his grandmother’s back yard, according to an autopsy requested by his family.
Police in California said they opened fire on Clark because they thought he had a gun, but later said he had only a white iPhone in his hand. Clark’s death triggered weeks of intense protests and public outrage in Sacramento.
When asked at a news conference Wednesday how the Crown Heights shooting compared with similar incidents across the country — and how police could prevent future shootings like it, including their responses to people with mental illness — Monahan declined to answer.
“Again, this is officers facing an incident on the street. Let’s stay focused on what they did today,” he said. “This was not an emotionally disturbed call. This was a call of a man pointing what 911 calls and people felt was a gun at people on the street. When we encounter him, he turns what appears to be a gun at the officers. We have to stay straight on the facts of this incident today.”
American police have shot and killed at least 3234 people since January 2015, according to The Washington Post’s database tracking such shootings. Black victims account for about 23 percent those shot and killed, and about 36 percent of the 222 unarmed people who have been shot and killed.
In at least a quarter of all fatal police shootings since January 2015, the person shot and killed is believed to have been in the midst of a mental or emotional health crisis at the time of the shooting, according to an analysis by The Post.
At least 289 people have been shot and killed so far in 2018, one in five of whom were in the midst of a mental or emotional health crisis at the time of the shooting, according to The Post database.