Updated April 5, 2018, 10:45 a.m., EDT
The National Action Network (NAN) will hold a vigil at 4:40 p.m. on Thursday in honor of Saheed Vassell–at the spot where NYPD officers gunned him down on Wednesday. The civil rights organization will join Vassell’s family “in calling for peace and justice in the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King,” said a statement from NAN.
Descalating the encounter and better community policing could have alerted NYPD officers that a mentally ill Black man was unarmed—before they gunned him down on Wednesday afternoon.
Four officers — one in uniform, three in plainclothes — killed Saheed Vassell, 34, in a hail of 10 bullets on a Brooklyn sidewalk. The officers responded to calls about a Black man with a gun. But it turned out that Vassell, who reportedly suffers from bipolar disorder, was holding a pipe. No firearm was found at the scene, the New York Daily News reported.
He allegedly “took a two-handed shooting stance” and pointed the pipe at the cops, according to the police.
However, the officers didn’t try to diffuse the situation—not even warning him to put down the object.
“They just hopped out of the car. It’s almost like they did a hit. They didn’t say please. They didn’t say put your hands up, nothing,” said Jaccbot Hinds, who witnessed the killing.
Indeed, the officers called for an ambulance about 27 seconds after they arrived at the scene, according to the newspaper.
This killing comes amid uproar in Sacramento over the police killing of 22-year-old Stephon Clark. He was unarmed when two officers fired at least 20 shots at him in his grandmother’s backyard on March 18, claiming that they believed he had a gun that turned out to be a cell phone.
There are many cases of police officers killing unarmed Black men because they believed the man had a weapon–shooting first before stopping to deescalate the situation. In 1999, for example, plainclothes NYPD cops fired 41 times at 22-year-old Amadou Diallo in the vestibule of his Bronx apartment. There’s also Alfred Olango, a mentally ill man who pointed a vaping device at officers when the cops shot and killed him in 2016.
The NYPD has been promoting its community policing program, but there was clearly a breakdown. Vassell, the father of a teenage son, was known in the Crown Heights community to suffer from mental illness.
“The officers from the neighborhood, they know him,” said Andre Wilson, Vassell’s longtime friend. “He has no issue with violence … This shouldn’t have happened at all.”
Neighborhood policing is at the core of the department’s approach to crime reduction, through building relationship with residents. Just the opposite happened on Wednesday.
An angry crowd gathered around the police tape after the shooting. Residents shouted at the officers and pointed out the cops involved in the incident.