New York police shoot and kill mentally ill black man who pointed a pipe at them

Saheed Vassell was well known around his Crown Heights neighborhood.

Police vehicles in New York. CREDIT: Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Police vehicles in New York. CREDIT: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

New York Police Department officers shot and killed a 34-year-old black man they believed was pointing a gun at people in Crown Heights Wednesday. The object in his hand was actually a piece of silver pipe with a knob at one end.

Police had received three 911 calls about the man, who the New York Times identified as Saheed Vassell. Vassell was a familiar face in the neighborhood, according to the paper, known to be mentally ill and in the habit of picking up refuse items from the gutter to play with as toys.

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Police released still images from surveillance videos showing Vassell holding the short length of pipe in one hand and pointing it at people in the street before police arrived. They did not release any videos of the encounter, and did not answer questions about whether officers had exchanged words with Vassell before opening fire.

Three plainclothes officers and two in uniform responding to the calls encountered Vassell near the corner of Montgomery Street and Utica Avenue. Four of the officers fired a total of 10 bullets. Witnesses said one of the officers fired almost immediately upon arriving to the corner, though one told the Times they had heard the men talking before the gunfire.

“It’s almost like they did a hit,” a witness named Jack Hinds told NBC 4. “They didn’t say ‘freeze,’ they didn’t say ‘put your hands up,’ they didn’t say ‘stop for a minute.’ They just started shooting.”

None of the officers involved were wearing body cameras, a police spokesman told reporters.

NYPD officers in the area were familiar with Vassell, the spokesman said, and had listed him as an emotionally disturbed person in department files. But the officers who responded to the 911 calls Wednesday were from mobile tactical units that rove broader areas of the city, not beat cops who might have been more likely to recognize the man.

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“Every cop in this neighborhood knows him,” 59-year-old John Fuller told the Times. New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is opening an investigation into the killing of Vassell, his office said Thursday morning.

Some details in the story will be familiar to those who pay reasonably close attention to police killings. Vassell was a black man, bringing the entire blurry catalog of implicit biases that infect all police interactions into play. The circumstances surrounding the encounter only worsened his odds of surviving an encounter with police.

The 911 calls gave police who rushed in a set notion that the guy they were looking for both had a gun and was menacing people with it in public. Police sources clarified that the three 911 callers had hedged a little bit, saying they thought the guy they saw had pointed a gun but couldn’t be sure it wasn’t some other object. That kind of wobbly intel from civilians that primes officers to shoot quickly featured in the high-profile police killings of Tamir Rice and John Crawford in Ohio.

Vassell’s father Eric also said his son had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

The officers who responded Wednesday didn’t have some tools other peers might have used to bring the situation to a peaceful resolution, from specific knowledge of Vassell as a neighborhood figure to specialized training in dealing with mentally ill civilians. Police around the country have struggled to incorporate psychological allowances into their training and policies for the use of force, and on-duty killings that make headlines often seem preventable but for the lack of widespread training in identifying and de-escalating a mental health crisis moment.

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Crown Heights residents told local reporters Vassell was a genial man who often talked to himself. He was “a caring father who begged for money in a nearby subway station and did odd jobs for shopkeepers. He loved to dance and was widely known to be mentally ill,” according to the Times.

The killing brought an angry crowd out to the Utica and Montgomery intersection, with dozens shouting at the mix of cops and reporters who gathered there.

“Hey, officer, stop murdering our people, how’s that sound?” one man yelled to police on camera.

This piece has been updated to note Schneiderman’s announcement.