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Brooklyn Cops Shoot Unarmed Bipolar Man Saheed Vassell

The object he held turned out to be a metal pipe.

  • A unarmed 34-year-old black man was shot and killed by police in Brooklyn when they say he pointed an object at them that ended up being a metal pipe.

    Police were responding to multiple 911 calls in the Crown Heights area of Brooklyn on Wednesday afternoon of a man threatening people on the street with a silver gun. Police Chief Terence Monahan said that officers arrived and saw a man matching the description of the suspect. He said: “The suspect then took a two-handed shooting stance and pointed an object at the approaching officers.”

    Surveillance video released by the NYPD does appear to show Vassell pointing the pipe at people on the street. And police say they’ve pinpointed the specific moment when officers fired at Vassell, though none of the officers were wearing body cameras, so there’s no way to know for sure.

    Nevertheless, neighborhood residents say Vassell was known to be mentally ill and that officers should have known that as well. Crown Heights residents told The New York Times he could frequently be seen begging in a subway station, doing odd jobs for shopkeepers, and picking up things off the street and playing with them like toys. Neighbor John Fuller said: “Every cop in this neighborhood knows him.” And that’s something the Times was told by a number of residents in the area — that any neighborhood police officer should have known Vassell well enough not to shoot him upon arrival.

    But the NYPD is denying any knowledge that Vassell had bipolar disorder.

    Saheed’s father Eric said his son hadn’t been on medication for his bipolar disorder for years and that he’d been admitted to the hospital multiple times in the last few years. But he’d never seen anything resembling violent behavior.

    Saheed’s aunt Nora Ford told the New York Daily News: “I just want to touch the blood where he died. I bet if he was a white kid, they wouldn't fire a shot at him like that.”

    This shooting comes right on the heels of the killing of Stephon Clark, who was shot by police Sacramento on March 18th. Clark was in his grandparents' backyard when police shot him. They thought he was holding a gun, but it was just a cell phone.

    That shooting has sparked outrage across the country and consistent protests in Sacramento. And it’s no secret that black people are more than twice as likely as white or Latino people to be shot by police. That’s not to say, however, all cops are walking around being virulent racists.

    Studies show that most people, in general, have an implicit bias against black people — that is, a bias we’re not even consciously aware of. Even in video game simulations, officers are quicker to shoot people with darker skin than those with lighter skin — regardless of whether or not they’re holding a weapon.

    It is clear that until cops can admit that they do have an implicit bias — and face consequences for their actions — shootings like those of Saheed Vassell and Stephon Clark will undoubtedly continue.

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