The day after NYPD officers shot and killed Saheed Vassell, a 34-year-old resident of Crown Heights, Jay Davis, a friend and neighbor of Vassell’s, was standing at the intersection of Utica and Montgomery, next to a memorial that had sprung up overnight on the corner where Vassell was a fixture, and where he died.
“Ten shots?” Davis said. “Why would you need to shoot someone ten times?” (The New York City Medical Examiner said Vassell was struck between seven and nine times, WNYC reports.)
Later on Thursday there would be a vigil and a march to the NYPD’s 71st Precinct stationhouse, called for by a slew of organizations that make up the city’s anti-police violence movement. But early in the afternoon, the dozens of onlookers who huddled together on the street were those who knew Vassell and called him a friend.
“He’s like the brother of the neighborhood, everybody’s little brother, everybody’s big brother,” Davis said of Vassell. It was widely known by many of his neighbors that he had mental health issues (the NY Times reported that he had taken medicine for bipolar disorder several years back), and people would help him out if he needed something — a few cigarettes here and there, or an odd job or two. “He doesn’t start no trouble,” Davis said.
Everyone gathered at the corner was aware of the facts of his death. Late Wednesday afternoon, three people had dialed 911, reporting a black man waving what they thought was a gun in his hand. Vassell was prone to picking up objects he found on the street, and had in fact been clutching a silver pipe. The four responding officers—three plainclothes anti-crime officers and one uniformed officer—fired their weapons at Vassell almost immediately, then handcuffed him as he lay motionless on the ground. The Daily News reports that an ambulance was requested less than 30 seconds after the officers arrived on the scene.
Speaking at an unrelated press conference on Thursday afternoon, Mayor Bill de Blasio called Vassell’s death a “human tragedy,” but pending an investigation, declined to say whether the shooting was a breakdown in his community policing strategy, or a failure of his administration’s push to help more New Yorkers living with mental illness.
“We need to know, was there a connection to our neighborhood policing officers? Was there information?” the mayor said. “But I also want to remind everyone, from what we know so far —very preliminarily—multiple reports of a man with a gun, aiming a gun at citizens—that is not a garden variety situation.”
De Blasio also touted the department’s “many instances where our officers have shown tremendous restraint,” but acknowledged that the officers who shot Vassell were not wearing body cameras.
The NYPD began using body cameras last spring, nearly four years after a federal judge ordered the department to begin using them in a pilot program. In January, the NYPD said it had issued a little under 2,500 body cameras, and says that by the end of 2018, all police officers and some special detectives, representing 18,000 officers, will be outfitted with them.
The NYPD’s response to Vassell’s death—releasing a carefully edited package of images from security cameras and snippets from the three 911 calls to seemingly justify the killing— infuriated many of those who gathered on Thursday evening, who remembered Vassell as a father, a man who liked to feed the pigeons on Eastern Parkway, a fun-loving partier who enjoyed his liquor, and a gyallis, in the words of his brother Marcus who spoke just before the march.
“I just want to get it clear that Saheed came from a good family, and they have no right to shoot him down the way, how they did it, because Saheed is no gunman,” his mother Lorna Vassell said. “They murdered my son, and I want justice for him.”
Lorna Vassell speaks out about her son's killing (Christopher Lee / Gothamist)
“You give him ten bullets? You wouldn’t give a dog ten bullets,” one woman near Vassell’s memorial told Gothamist. Hannah, 58, had been on the block the day before and had seen Vassell in handcuffs on the sidewalk, and began crying as she remembered it. “I saw him on the ground. I thought officers were there to serve and protect. Is it because we’re black? That’s murder.”
Charline Pierre, 18, was born and raised in Crown Heights. This was her first protest. “To find out he got shot down, I was like, are you for real?” Pierre said. “It’s an epidemic, police shooting people, especially black people.”
Like many others, Pierre thought that the rapid gentrification of Crown Heights played a role in Vassell’s death.
“All these white people moving in, all these new shops,” Pierre said, pointing to a construction site along the march route. “I don’t like the fact that they’re changing the whole neighborhood.”
Though it’s unclear who made the three phone calls to 911, Pierre and others suggested that only someone relatively new to the neighborhood would have done so, a belief shared by 25-year-old protester Teiko Yakobson.
“I’m definitely one of the people who’ve moved into Brooklyn and live in a primarily black neighborhood. As white people, we’re not doing a good job being responsible neighbors,” Yakobson said. “We have the privilege of thinking that the cops keep us safe, when that is not the reality for a lot of people.”
Walking alone on the edge of the moving crowd was Victor Dempsey, whose brother Delrawn Small was killed by an off-duty officer who shot him three times on July 4, 2016. Dempsey had spent a good part of the day with Vassell’s family, to offer them support as they navigate the sudden and unwanted roles they’ve been thrust into.
“I don’t think anyone can relate to the pain you feel unless you’ve really been through it,” Dempsey said. The past two years that he has spent seeking accountability for his brother’s killing have been, in his words, grueling. The officer who shot and killed his brother was found not guilty of murder and manslaughter in November of last year.
“It drains you mentally, physically, emotionally, financially,” he said.
Earlier in the day at a press conference held on the corner where Vassell was killed, a speaker had promised, “This is not just the beginning of a protest, this is the resurgence of a movement.” Many who turned out Thursday night referenced the deaths of Amadou Diallo, Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, and Stephon Clark, an unarmed black man and father who was killed by police in Sacramento on March 18th, setting off protests that have continued into April.
As the temperature dropped and night fell, hundreds huddled together against the gates encircling the 71st Precinct, and chants of Vassell’s name filled the air. Someone had projected the words “Justice for Saheed Vassell” onto a nearby building. An NYPD spokesperson said one protester was “detained” and issued a summons for disorderly conduct.
“Where’s the officer that killed him?” one woman murmured, as we stood facing the blank-faced cops gathered inside the fence they had erected. “Let us see him.”
This was previously published on the Gothamist newsletter on April 6, 2018. Don't miss stories—sign up for our newsletter here.