Advocates, neighbors, and fellow victims of police violence gathered on Wednesday to demand justice for Saheed Vassell, the 34-year-old man fatally shot in Crown Heights by police officers who mistakenly believed he was holding a gun.
The rally, held the day before the one-year anniversary of Vassell's death, brought dozens of people to City Hall, including the victim's parents, Lorna and Eric Vassell. Less than a week earlier, they'd received a call from a representative of Attorney General Letitia James informing them that the office would not be bringing charges against the officers.
"We felt disrespected not only [because of] the attorney general's decision, but at how we were treated as a victim family," Mr. Vassell, who is suing the city for $25 million, said on Wednesday. "For this decision to come less than a week before the anniversary of Saheed's death, while we are in deep mourning and grief, was insensitive to the many injustices our family is already suffering."
The meeting alerting them to the decision, he added, was "impersonal and dismissive of all we have gone through waiting for the outcome of this investigation." (Asked about this at a separate news conference on Wednesday, James told Gothamist/WNYC, "I stand by my office and I pray for the Vassell family.")
Beyond their frustration with the lack of charges, the grieving parents were deeply critical of Mayor Bill de Blasio for his handling of their son's death. They noted that Vassell's criminal and mental health records leaked within days of the killing, suggesting that the city was pushing a narrative about their son — who was diagnosed bipolar, and was known to local residents as an erratic but harmless neighborhood fixture. The city also shared selectively edited 911 calls and video footage showing Vassell wielding the pipe as a gun.
But when asked to disclose the identities of the officers involved in the shooting — as has long been standard practice within the department — the mayor refused, saying he didn't think it was "appropriate to name the names up front." Witnesses later said the officers made no effort to deescalate the situation, and video showed them opening fire within seconds of exiting their police vehicles.
— Justice Committee (@watchthecops) April 3, 2019
The officers' names — Leon Dinham, Anthony Bottiglieri, Bekim Molic, and Omar Rafiq — did eventually leak about four months later. A spokesperson for the NYPD has not responded to Gothamist's inquiries about whether any have faced discipline.
According to a report released by the Attorney General's Office on Friday, investigators found that while the 911 callers weren't clear about whether the object was a gun, officers received information from dispatchers indicating a "firearm job." That report recommended the NYPD review public information protocols, and called for "comprehensive critical incident training" for both 911 operators and police dispatchers.
Those recommendations did little to assuage the anger of the activists in attendance on Wednesday — a group including relatives of police shooting victims Delrawn Small and Mohamed Bah, as well as Councilmembers Brad Lander and Antonio Reynoso. For many, the details of Vassell's death, combined with the failure to prosecute the officers, served as further evidence that the city was not serious about protecting vulnerable New Yorkers from NYPD violence.
"This is a mayoral administration that talks about community policing, that talks about rebuilding relationships with the community, but none of that came to bear when [Vassell] was on the streets of Crown Heights and struck down," said Mark Winston Griffith, executive director of the Brooklyn Movement Center.
"What kind of society sends a militarized force into a neighborhood?" he added. "What kinds of society sends in police to shoot first and ask questions later? What kind of press and police force criminalize a man, goes on the defense, declares him crazy, paints him as homeless to dehumanize him and signal that it is ultimately acceptable to kill him?"
A spokesperson for the Mayor's Office did not respond to Gothamist's request for comment.
A vigil will be held at 4 p.m. on Thursday at the site of the shooting — Utica Avenue and Montgomery Street — to mark the one year anniversary of Vassell's death.
Additional reporting by Paula Moura and Lydia McMullen-Laird