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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 three 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. Five officers - three in plainclothes and two in uniform - responded to the scene at Utica Ave. 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 plainsclothes officers and one uniformed officer fired 10 rounds between 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 were wearing body cameras, he said. The object that Vassell was holding up was holding wound up "being a metal pipe with some sort of knob at the end of it", Monahan 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". 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, 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."
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 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 e-mail Thursday morning.
The NAACP 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 after both New York Mayor Bill 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, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, 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 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 the 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 that 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 around the country - and how police could prevent future incidents 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 of 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.
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Just a few questions. How do five police officers confuse such an obscure iron pipe with a weapon? How do five police officers fail to warn the subject or tell him to lower his weapon?
I have to agree with the aunt on this one. When speaking about the 19 year old who shot 17 kids at a school in Florida, this kid wasn't shot because he didn't "pose an immediate threat towards police officers" because he wasn't brandishing a weapon; why couldn't they give this 34 year old man a chance to lower his "weapon" by asking him to do so?
I'm not usually against police officers using their authority to take down perps but... TO TAKE DOWN LEGITIMATE DANGERS TO THE COMMUNITY, NOT A MAN ARMED WITH AN OBSCURE SHAPED IRON PIPE. This was a misuse of force.