It appeared to take just seconds for New York City police officers to pull up at an intersection in Brooklyn, get out of their vehicles, draw their weapons, and fire fatal shots at Saheed Vassel, a bipolar black man.
The killing, which happened April 4, triggered unrest in Vassel’s community and comparisons to Stephon Clark, a black man shot in the back several times by Sacramento Police in March. In both instances, police thought the suspect had a gun — they did not.
The New York Police Department released grainy surveillance footage Tuesday from a storefront across the street in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, showing the moment that officers killed Vassel after responding to 911 calls saying a man was threatening people with what looked like a gun.
None of the officers who responded that day were equipped with body-worn cameras, a rarity these days in high-profile police shooting cases in major cities. Three of the five officers who showed up were plainclothes, and the city’s body camera policy only applies only to uniformed officers.
New York City is in the process of equipping all uniformed officers with body cameras, which city officials hope to complete by the end of 2018. As of March, the 71st Precinct — where Vassel was killed — had only partially implemented the body camera program.
That means surveillance footage from surrounding businesses may give the best look at what happened from the moment police arrived on the scene to their use of lethal force on Vassel.
Here’s what we can see:
At about 2 minutes and 45 seconds into the video, an unmarked vehicle plus a police SUV swerves up to an intersection in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn. Officers exit their vehicles swiftly, with what appear to be guns apparently drawn.
There’s no audio, but at 2 minutes and 55 seconds, pedestrians start running for cover. Vassel, 34, was later transported to Kings County Hospital Center where he was pronounced dead.
The rapid sequence of events leading to Vassel’s death is in keeping with eyewitness accounts. Jaccbot Hinds, 40, told the New York Daily News that officers didn’t warn Vassel or try to de-escalate the situation before opening fire.
“They just hopped out of the car,” Hinds said. “It’s almost like they did a hit. They didn’t say please. They didn’t say put your hands up, nothing.”
It turned out that Vassel didn’t have a gun. He was wielding a metal pipe.
The NYPD released transcripts of 911 calls related to the incident last week. “There is a guy walking around. He looks like he is crazy, but he’s pointing something at people that looks like a gun and he’s popping it like he’s pulling the trigger,” said one caller. “He’s not pulling a trigger, but he’s making a motion as if he is, and there is something sticking out of his pocket.”
The NYPD also released an edited video last week showing Vassel pointing a shiny, silver object at pedestrians.
Vassel’s case is being handled by state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. That’s because Cuomo signed an executive order saying that the state AG will act as special prosecutor in all cases where police kill an unarmed civilian. His decision came amid pressure from police reform activists, who said removing the local district attorney (which often has close ties to police departments) from the equation would help restore public confidence in police shooting investigations.
“The NYPD is committed to transparency, as demonstrated with prior releases of body worn camera footage of officer-involved-shootings when it is available,” said the NYPD’s deputy commissioner of public information Phillip Walzak in a statement. “The NYPD is also committed to ensuring that the Attorney General can conduct a thorough and complete review.”
Cover image: Surveillance image of Saheed Vassel provided by the NYPD.