Police seeking to defend their killing of a New York City man they mistakenly believed was armed with a gun released videotape on Thursday showing him brandishing a metal object like a weapon and provided excerpts of 911 calls reporting a man threatening people with a pistol.
Snippets of security videos put out on the New York Police Department’s Twitter account show Saheed Vassell, who had a history of mental illness, thrusting something that looked like the barrel of a gun into the faces of three people on the street, including a woman holding the hand of a child.
A last video showed him crouch and point the object again — this time, police said, in the direction of officers arriving on the scene. They responded with 10 gunshots.
Only after he was fatally wounded did the officers discover that the metal object was an L-shaped pipe.
According to the partial transcripts of the 911 calls released by the department, one caller reported that Vassell “looks like he’s crazy but he’s pointing something at people that looks like a gun.”
“Where is the gun?” a dispatcher asked one caller. “His hand,” the caller replied.
The release of the edited material — the full videos and transcripts weren’t immediately provided — was meant to back up claims by the police department that the four plainclothes and two uniformed officers who responded had a legitimate reason to believe they needed to move swiftly to stop a deadly threat.
New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio said in a news conference Thursday that the killing was “a tragedy by any measure.” He said Vassell had “a profound mental health problem.”
But he didn’t lay blame on the officers, who were not from the local precinct and were passing through at the time. They had no information, the mayor said, that the person they were confronting was mentally ill.
“People in the community thought he had a weapon and was aiming at residents,” said de Blasio, a Democrat.
The material released by the department didn’t answer questions about whether the officers had identified themselves or ordered the victim to drop the object before they opened fire.
The shooting Wednesday evening prompted protests. Demonstrators gathered at City Hall on Thursday afternoon.
Vassell’s father, Eric, told reporters that his son had been hospitalized several times for psychiatric problems, some involving encounters with the police, but that he was polite and kind.
“Police had a choice. They always have a choice. They should not train them to kill. They should train them to protect life, to save life,” Eric Vassell said in an interview with WABC-TV.
A tense crowd gathered after the shooting, with some people shouting at officers and decrying the killing as another example of an unarmed black man dying at the hands of police officers who overreacted.
On Thursday, Ruta Deshong, who owns a reggae record shop on the same block where Vassell lived, said she had known him since he was a young boy and that the police who normally patrol the neighborhood knew him well.
“If they had said, ‘Drop your weapon,’ he would have,” Deshong said. “The officers in the neighborhood know him. He’s all around the place. They know he’s not trouble.”
A family friend, Berrest Biggs, said he learned of the shooting through social media.
“I said, ’Is that Saheed?’” Biggs said. “He was like a child. … This kid didn’t bother nobody.”
In police radio traffic recorded during the incident and posted online, dispatchers directing officers to the scene said 911 callers were reporting only that a person was pointing a gun at people. After the shooting, the officers can be heard frantically calling for dispatchers to send an ambulance.
New York’s attorney general, Eric Schneiderman, announced that he would investigate the shooting.
Under an executive order issued by the governor in 2015, the attorney general has the power to act as a special prosecutor in cases involving police killings of unarmed people.
Schneiderman’s spokeswoman, Amy Spitalnick, promised “an independent, comprehensive and fair investigation.”
The shooting comes after the police killing of an unarmed black man on March 18 in Sacramento, California, sparked two weeks of protests and calls for police reform. Stephon Clark, 22, was shot by officers responding to a report of someone breaking car windows. Police said they thought he had a gun, but he was carrying only a cellphone.
Associated Press writer David Jeans contributed to this report.
Source: Associated Press