On Wednesday afternoon—in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn—New York Police Department officers fatally shot a black man who was holding a metal pipe with a knob on it, an object reminiscent of a shower head. The New York Times reported that the police in question claimed they thought the man was holding a gun.
A few hours after the shooting was first reported, the victim was identified by family members as 34-year-old Saheed Vassell, the father of teenage boy. Vassell died at Kings County Hospital shortly after he was shot by cops multiple times.
NYPD Chief of Department Terence Monahan said during a press conference on Wednesday that police were responding to three 911 calls, and that when they arrived at the street corner where Vassell stood, he turned to face them and aimed an object in their general direction. In Monahan’s words, “The suspect then took a two-handed shooting stance and pointed an object at the approaching officers.” In response—goes the NYPD’s version of events—four officers fired 10 shots at Vassell, hitting him several times.
A witness, named Jaccbot Hinds, told the New York Daily News that the cops emerged from an unmarked vehicle and fired off their guns without warning. “They just hopped out of the car,” said Hinds. “It’s almost like they did a hit. They didn’t say please. They didn’t say put your hands up, nothing.”
Speaking to the NYDN, Vassell’s 15-year-old son, Tyshawn said of his father, “He cared for everybody. If you saw him, he’d always be in a laughing mood. You would never catch him down.” And of the news of his death: “This is what our society has come to.”
Reports also indicate that Vassell had ongoing mental health concerns—that’s how several locals who encountered him regularly described him to the NYDN. One man, Andre Wilson, who’s known Vassell for decades said, “He speaks to himself, usually he has an orange Bible or a rosary in his hand. He never had a problem with anyone.” Vassell’s father, Eric Vassell, told NY1 on Wednesday that his son was bipolar, and completely harmless. According to interviews conducted with neighbors by the Times, Vassell “had a penchant for picking things up off the street—cigarette lighters, empty bottles and other curbside flotsam—and playing with them like toys.”
Wednesday also marked 50 years since Civil Rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis. Vassell’s former partner, and Tyshawn’s mother, Sherlan Smith, remarked upon the significance of the date: “On the anniversary of the man who stood up for black people…you’re going to take a black man down with nine bullets.”