Four New York Police officers fatally shot a bipolar black man in Brooklyn in broad daylight on Wednesday, just hours after the mayor and police commissioner were boasting about the city’s historic low in shootings.
NYPD Police Chief Terence Monahan said in a press conference on Wednesday that five officers, three in plainclothes and two in uniform, were responding to 911 calls reporting a possibly armed man in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn. They encountered the suspect, Saheed Vassel, 34, at around 4.56 p.m. Police initially thought Vassel, whose the father of a teenage boy, had a gun, but he was holding a metal pipe.
When the officers encountered Vassel, Monahan said, “The suspect then took a two-handed shooting stance and pointed an object at the approaching officers.” Four of the five officers present drew their weapons and fired at Vassel a total of ten times. Vassel was transported to Kings County Medical Center where he was pronounced dead.
Jaccbot Hinds, 40, who witnessed the shooting, told the New York Daily News that the officers got out of their unmarked vehicle and fired at Vassel without warning. “They just hopped out of the car. It’s almost like they did a hit,” Hinds said. “They didn’t say please. They didn’t say put your hands up, nothing.”
Monahan didn’t say whether or not the officers warned Vassel that they were going to shoot.
The NYPD is currently in the process of outfitting all of its uniformed officers with body-worn cameras by the end of 2018, but Monahan said neither of the two uniformed officers involved in Vassel’s death were wearing cameras. As of March 2018, the 71st precinct — where Vassel was killed — had partially outfitted its officers with body-worn cameras.
In the absence of body-worn camera footage, Monahan instead held up stills from surveillance footage from the scene during the press conference.
Police killed Vassel only hours after New York City’s Mayor Bill de Blasio and police commissioner James O’Neill highlighted citywide historical lows in homicides and shootings at a news conference. Meanwhile, police shootings in New York have also dropped to their lowest rates ever. Officers discharged their weapons just 23 times in all of 2017, a 44 percent decrease from 2016, according to data collected by the New York Daily News.
The NYPD is also two years into rolling out its Crisis Intervention Program, which was developed to improve officers’ response to mentally ill individuals. Vassell's father Eric Vassell told the New York Times that his son had bipolar disorder and had been hospitalized multiple times in recent years.
Monahan suggested that the nature of the 911 call was not one that, on its face, called for a crisis intervention team.
"This was not an EDP [Emotionally Disturbed Person] call,” said Monahan. “This was a call of a man pointing what 911 callers felt was a gun at people on the street.”
“When we encounter him, he turns with what appears to be a gun at the officers,” Monahan added. “We have to stay straight on the facts with this incident today.”
Later on Wednesday, residents gathered at the scene of the shooting and were joined by protesters carrying Black Lives Matter signs. Many of those in the crowd pointed out that the shooting fell on the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr., as people across the country were reflecting on racial justice and civil rights.
Cover image: Surveillance screenshot provided by the NYPD.