“We want names! We want names!” the small crowd chanted Wednesday evening at the intersection of Montgomery Street and Utica Avenue in Brooklyn. They were gathered at the spot where, four weeks earlier, a bipolar man from the neighborhood, Saheed Vassell, was shot and killed by four New York City police officers.
People of all ages turned out to commemorate Vassell and to protest what they see as a lack of transparency from the police. His family and the community are seeking the names of the four officers who shot Vassell and unedited security camera footage of his death.
“When they show the video, I will have peace,” said Lorna Vassell, Saheed’s mother, to the crowd who wore badges, t-shirts and hoodies emblazoned with her son’s face.
On the afternoon of April 4, police responded to three 911 phone calls about a man threatening people with what was possibly a gun. The mentally ill man was, in fact, holding a metal pipe. But then he “took a two-handed shooting stance,” and pointed the object at the plainclothes and uniformed NYPD officers, according to police. He was shot ten times and died on the scene.
Two days after the shooting, the NYPD released a snippet of closed circuit TV footage of Vassell brandishing the metal pipe at people before the police arrived and some transcripts from the 911 calls. The following week, they released a video depicting the shooting from a security camera about half a block away from the incident. Because of the distance, the video quality is poor and does not reveal much about the confrontation between Vassell and the police.
It is still unclear what happened before Vassell was shot. Witness accounts of the fatal shooting differ—some said that the police did not say anything to Vassell before firing and others say some words were exchanged, according to the New York Times.
The NYPD hasn’t responded to a request for comment by NY City Lens about the footage or why it hasn’t released the names of the responding officers. A police spokesperson told WYNC via email, however, that “The NYPD has a long-standing practice not to disclose the names of officers involved in shootings for the safety of those involved,” that is, to prevent reprisal against the officers. But, this policy of non-disclosure is inconsistently applied by the police department, says WNYC. The radio station reported that the names of officers that fatally shot men perceived as threats have been released in three out of five incidences since last September.
Vassell’s parents have been vocal in the aftermath of their son’s death about their desire to know the names and background of the police officers, repeatedly requesting this information in interviews with the media. If they obtain the names, the family will also be able to obtain the misconduct records of the officers, Anthonine Pierre, one of the organizers of the rally, told NY City Lens.
The shooting has caused anger and sorrow in Crown Heights, as NYCity Lens reported on April 7, with long-term residents placing some of the fault of his death on changing demographics. Community members knew that he had a habit of holding and collecting strange objects he found on the streets. Ann Brown, 45, who watched the rally from the other side of the intersection said she grew up with Vassell. “I would never call the police. Why would you call them on someone who has lived here his whole life?” she said. Rather, they believe it was the mostly white new residents of the neighborhood, who didn’t know Vassell, who dialled 911. No details about the callers have been released.
Wednesday’s rally was the latest in a series of protests in Crown Heights catalyzed by Vassell’s death and was organized by advocacy groups on behalf of his family. One of the first attendees to arrive at the street corner for the rally was local Chaplain Zaquan Jones, 35, who has worked to restore the relationship between the NYPD and the community since 2016.
“The police get paid to protect us, not kill us,” Jones, who uses an electric wheelchair, said. “At this point we want to see results. We want answers.”
People from outside of the neighborhood also attended to show support. An older, well-dressed white woman from Park Slope, Brooklyn who declined to be named, told NY City Lens that although she didn’t think the rally would make a difference, she was protesting police procedure, which demands that when officers shoot, they shoot to kill. “I think if people don’t keep being visible, it makes it easier for the government not to take action,” she said.
Vassell’s parents, uncle and his partner spoke at the rally their speeches punctuated with the audience responding in unison to their calls about police accountability. “No justice!” Vassel’s father yelled. “No peace!” the crowd replied.
Other families of people who died in interactions with the NYPD attended and spoke, including Gwen Carr, mother of man Eric Garner who was fatally choked by police in Staten Island in 2017 and Hawa Bah, whose mentally ill son, Mohamed Bah was shot by police in his Harlem apartment in 2012.
Bah, a softly spoken woman who wore a gray headscarf, told NY City Lens she supported the Vassell family and hoped they wouldn’t have to wait as long as she did for justice—the Bah family was awarded $2.21 million by the state over five years after Mohamed was shot.
“It’s a club which you don’t want people to join,” she said.