Saheed Vassell’s father sat, alone, on the steps of the New York City Hall. He looked down at the ground as his elbows rested on his knees, and the early April sun outlined his hunched shoulders. A year ago, on April 4th, 2018, his son was fatally shot by police on the corner of Utica Avenue and Montgomery street, in Crown Heights. He had come to remember him, and to ask for accountability for his death.
Less than a week earlier, the New York State Attorney General Letitia Jame’s office had informed the family that it would not be seeking criminal charges against the officers involved in the shooting. On Wednesday, some twenty people showed up to challenge the announcement and show support for Vassell’s family.
“That ain’t right,” supporters chanted together under the City Hall American flag. Organizers held ten signs, each with what they designated as “facts” about Vassell’s death: “Fact #1: Saheed was a father, son, brother and beloved member of his Crown Heights community,” said one, held by a young woman who stood on the steps.
Days after the April 2018 shooting, police released a video, apparently shot by witnesses in Crown Heights, showing Vassell walking down the street and pointing a metal, silver-colored object at passersby, sometimes in their face. Some of them appeared to be frightened. The NYPD also released 911 transcripts, one of which said “there is a guy in a brown jacket walking around pointing—I don’t know, (to someone else) what is he pointing in people’s face? They say it’s a gun, it’s silver.” Authorities later published a picture of the item, and it appeared to be a metal pipe. Police responded to the scene and fired ten shots at Vassell, nine of which hit him.
Vassell suffered from bipolar disorder—friends said that police who work in the neighborhood were familiar with him and his sometimes odd behavior. But the first group of NYPD officers to arrive on the scene were from a roving “anti-crime” unit and a strategic response group, and didn’t know Vassell or anything about his mental illness, NYCityLens and other outlets last year.
The Attorney General’s recently released about the investigation stated that “the officers’ actions were legally justified, and that there was no adequate evidence to warrant criminal prosecution against the officers involved.” In the report, authorities wrote that police fired thinking that the object Vassell held was a gun.
Eric Vassell, Saheed Vassell’s father, expressed outrage about the attorney general’s decision—which, he said, was delivered in an “impersonal and dismissive” telephone call five days ago. The timing, he added, was also shortsighted. “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,” Eric Vassell said in front of City Hall, where he spoke, stone-faced. “Many questions remain unanswered.”
Next to Eric Vassell stood Mark Winston Griffith, nodding supportively, hands clasped. Griffith, 56, is the executive director of the Brooklyn Movement Center, a community organizing group that has been working with the Vassell family to push for accountability for the death of their son. Griffith told NYCityLens that the Attorney General’s decision signaled a “refusal to change policies so that the there’s less of a chance that this happens again.” Griffith said he believes that there should have been repercussions for the officers involved.
Griffith asked those at the vigil: “What kind of society sends in police to shoot first and to ask questions later?”
City Council members also spoke at the gathering, asking for greater transparency about the incident from the offices of the mayor and Attorney General, and expressing sympathy for Vassell’s family. “You don’t need to kill me to do your job,” said Councilman Antonio Reynoso, addressing what he viewed as a general failure of the NYPD to take accountability for shootings of unarmed black men.
Council members Brad Lander, Inez Barron, and Rory Lancman also spoke at the event—Lancman shook Mr. Vassell’s hand as he walked away from the microphone.
At the end of the event, Lorna Vassell, Saheed Vassell’s mother, stood on the side of the main platform, hugging those who had come to support her. “Every morning, Saheed would come into my room and say ‘Hi mama,’” she told NYCityLens. “I lost my son, it’s really hard to cope with.”