NYPD answer to a mental health crisis: Shoot

Saheed Vassell's family and community want answers after yet another unarmed Black man was killed by police, explain Nikki Blazek, Lider Restrepo and Yoni Golijov.

Eric Vassell protests the murder of his son Saheed by the NYPDEric Vassell protests the murder of his son Saheed by the NYPD

"EVERYONE WHO came into contact with him was left with a lasting impression," Telah Vassell, the younger sister of Saheed Vassell, told a reporter as she stood near her brother's casket. "No matter what, Saheed always ended his conversations with 'I love you.'"

Hundreds of mourners at Saheed's April 20 funeral echoed similar sentiments, recalling him as a gentle man and loving father.

On April 4, police shot and killed the unarmed 34-year-old father outside of a local bodega. The police shot Saheed in the head. They shot him twice in the chest. And six more police bullets hit him in his body. They fired 10 shots in all.

After they killed him, the police put Vassell in handcuffs. But they never found a gun--only an L-shaped section of metal pipe.

A crowd of about 1,200 people, including Saheed's friends and family, community members and activists, gathered for a vigil the next day on the corner of Utica Street and Montgomery Avenue—the same spot where police opened fire on Saheed after 911 calls that a man was holding a gun and pointing it at people.

Eric Vassell, Saheed's father, told reporters his son was bipolar and hadn't been taking his medication for a year, but that he didn't deserve to die. "Police had a choice," said Vassell. "They always have a choice. They should not train them to kill. They should train them to protect life, to save life."

Several shopkeepers and neighbors commented that police in the area knew Vassell well and sometimes bought him food.

That raises questions about what cops responded to the call about Vassell—reportedly two uniformed and three plainclothes officers—and about who called police in the first place, given that the Crown Heights neighborhood where he lived is gentrifying rapidly.

"This is a guy that the cops see every day," said 45-year-old Latitia Richardson. "He isn’t a stranger to the community, he stands in the same place every day. So if you're policing this community, you would know him."

Speakers at the rally on April 5 repeatedly demanded that the New York police department release the names of the officers who shot Vassell and called for them to be prosecuted.

Vassell's murder in Brooklyn occurred just weeks after Sacramento police shot Stephon Clark several times after they thought the cellphone that he was carrying was a gun. As speakers shared memories of Saheed, many spoke with anger about how in both cases, police were prepared to shoot any Black man they encountered in response to 911 calls.

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The Protests After His Murder

AS THE April 5 vigil wound down and dusk settled on the neighborhood, the crowd took the street to march the seven blocks to the 71st Precinct, chanting slogans that have become all too familiar against the repeated police killings of Black people.

"No justice, no peace," the crowd chanted, and "Say his name!"

In response, people invoked not just "Saheed," but the litany of other unarmed Black and Brown men who have lost their lives to police violence in recent years: Eric Garner, Nicholas Haywood Jr., Amadou Diallo, Kimani Gray, Akai Gurley and Ramarley Graham.

As protesters reached the barricades in front of the precinct, community affairs officers with the New York Police Department were on hand. Asked to explain the shooting, they told the crowd, "They were just doing their job. It's their job."

"If it's your job to kill innocent people, then you should quit," someone in the crowd responded.

Vernal Howell, who has lived in Crown Heights for 30 years, saw Saheed moments before police murdered him. He was at the rally and described what he saw to Socialist Worker:

Yesterday, I went to the check-cashing store. When I walked out, Saheed was outside and said, "Big man, can you give me a dollar?" I gave him $5. Then I was walking across the street--I live right there—and by the time I reached there, I heard, "Pop! Pop!" I thought: what the fuck happened? It's not Christmas. It's not Halloween.

So I turned around, and I hear, "Shots fired!" When I look, I see a car with the four doors opened. And when he was going down, they shot him three or four more times. I was in shock. I saw them shoot him. I saw them. After they shot him and he's going down, why shoot him again?

I knew him. I gave him food all the time. I work in a bakery over there, and I gave him food all the time, because I know he wasn't right up there. And they killed him. They killed him.

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A Mental Health Crisis

Although New York City's 911 emergency phone lines receive as many as 400 calls a day related to people experiencing mental health episodes, austerity policies and budget cuts to social services since the 2008 financial crisis have left the public with few options for help. That makes the police the first responders for these types of health emergencies.

But records show that police are not only poorly equipped to deal with people experiencing mental health crises. They are deadly: those with mental health issues are 16 times more likely to be killed during a police encounter than other civilians, according to a study by the Treatment Advocacy Center.

In comments during a press conference after Vassell's death, Mayor Bill de Blasio managed to both defend police violence and praise himself, cynically blaming the victim: "I can't replay history, none of us can, but a man like this, if he had gotten the help he needed, hopefully would never have been in such a situation, where such a horrible painful tragedy would have occurred."

While de Blasio went on to tout the city's recently established Mobile Crisis Units--teams of nurses, social workers and psychiatrists who are trained to respond to mental health crises--he failed to mention that response times can take as long as 24 hours.

By contrast, the NYPD's Strategic Response Group—a rapid-reaction police force established in 2015 to handle incidents of civil unrest, terrorism and other citywide emergencies—can be deployed in a matter of minutes, with the full sanction of the state to use deadly force.

At the protest, New York City Council member Jumaane Williams called out de Blasio's moral bankruptcy when it comes to mental health, racism and police violence.

Last July, the NYPD shot and killed Dwayne Jeune, an emotionally disturbed man in Brooklyn. After the murder, said Williams:

I asked for the most minimal of things. A task force to see how we are dealing with emotionally disturbed people in our communities. The mayor's initial response was no. I was infuriated. How dare you say no when someone is dead in my community?

Other council members joined me and asked for that task force. Finally the mayor said yes, he was going to do it. Seven months have passed, and we have no task force and no answers about how we're dealing with this. And we have another person who was emotionally disturbed dead.

Similarly, newly elected City Council member Alicka Ampry-Samuel recounted the police murder of 21-year-old Erickson Gomez Brito in 2016, another mentally unstable man from Brooklyn whom police shot after they said he reached for a police baton.

"Minding his business in his family's house," Ampry-Samuel said. "He came outside, the police said that he grabbed at their batons, and they just straight killed him.

“No one respects us. We are not respected as a community. Everybody is pissed off. You're supposed to be pissed off. Because enough is--I don't want even want to say enough is enough. I don't even want to say that. This is ridiculous."

"The time is now," she concluded. "We need to make sure that we stay angry, and we need to make sure that we stay in the streets."

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The Backdrop of Gentrification

People at the rally also condemned the impact of gentrification on the community.

From 2000 to 2015, the Black population declined in South Crown Heights by 18 percent while the white population increased by 160 percent. The number of businesses that opened increased by 80 percent, and rent also increased by 18 to 29 percent between 2010 and 2014.

There was anger at the rally directed at outsiders who didn't acquaint themselves with Saheed or get to know about his mental health. They called for new residents to connect with the community, instead of trying to replace it.

The history of de facto racial borders has created a familiar pattern--predominantly Black neighborhoods endure decades of divestment, which erodes residents' economic capacity to maintain stable and prosperous communities.

This makes them vulnerable to companies that, as New York continues to attract new residents, see an opportunity to develop these areas, not for the folks who already live there, but to turn a profit.

New York politicians would rather increase the city's economic base than protect rent stability, and they are willing to displace people with police violence in order to do it. Stepped-up policing and criminalization of existing residents are the sharp edge of gentrification.

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What's Next?

So far, the family and community are making four demands: release the unedited video of Saheed's murder; release the names of the officers who shot him; fire them; and prosecute, convict and sentence them to prison for Saheed's death.

They are also raising money for Saheed's funeral expenses, for his 16-year-old son, and for his family.

The NYPD initially released edited video of Vassell's actions prior to the shooting, opting not to make public the complete video of his death. After facing criticism, on April 10, police released video showing cops shooting Vassell.

But they are still hiding evidence. Andwele Vassell, Saheed's brother, said the family wants the release of "everything that took place that day, prior [to] when it happened, after it happened, so New Yorkers understand what took place."

The family was joined by Constance Malcolm, the mother of Ramarley Graham. In 2012, Graham was murdered by police in his own home at age 18. "I've been going through this for six years," said Malcolm. "We want the real story. We want to see the tapes, all the tapes--not just what you want to release."

Linda Sarsour, a prominent activist who grew up in the area, told the crowd at the rally: "Those men who killed our brother Saheed need to spend some time in jail. They make people spend time in jail for minor crimes, but they can murder our people in our community and walk free?"

"Sisters and brothers, this is the time for us to unite as a community," Sarsour continued. "Nobody is going to fight for us if we don't fight for ourselves. Don't let them try to justify this murder, because they can't justify the murder of any unarmed person who they killed in the past."