Crown Heights

A year after Saheed Vassell’s death, his parents are still searching for justice

“The first thing the NYPD did was blame him for his own death.”

April 5, 2019 Noah Goldberg
Family, friends and neighbors of Saheed Vassell took to the streets in Crown Heights on Thursday to march in remembrance on the anniversary of Vassell's death. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane

Thursday marked one year since NYPD officers shot and killed Saheed Vassell, a black man carrying a pipe police mistook for a gun down a Crown Heights street.

The case reignited anger about police shootings of black men and the way the NYPD interacts with emotionally disturbed persons.

Vassell’s parents rallied on the steps of City Hall on Wednesday after Attorney General Letitia James announced her office would not bring criminal charges against the officers who shot their son. They called on Mayor Bill de Blasio to fire the four cops involved.

On Thursday — the anniversary of their son’s death — Eric and Lorna Vassell took to the streets of Crown Heights and marched alongside friends and activists.

The group held a candlelit vigil before the march in their son’s honor. Friends gathered outside Kev’s Unique Barbershop — just across the street from where Vassell was shot — where he used to be a regular.

Vassell’s close friend Henry Emmanuel Christian recalled how Vassell would wait for him at the corner of Eastern Parkway and Utica Avenue to finish his night shift at FedEx. “Religiously — every morning — so we could start our day off.”

“He had love in his heart,” Christian said.

Christian said he knew black men in New York died too often at the hands of police, but he never expected it to hit so close to home.

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Demonstrators marched up Utica Avenue to Eastern Parkway. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane
Demonstrators marched up Utica Avenue to Eastern Parkway. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane
Saheed Vassell’s close friend Henry Emmanuel Christian spoke to the crowd on Eastern Parkway. "He had love in his heart," Christian said. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane
Saheed Vassell’s close friend Henry Emmanuel Christian spoke to the crowd on Eastern Parkway. “He had love in his heart,” Christian said. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane

But on April 4, 2018, cops responding to reports of a man armed with a silver gun shot Vassell nine times, killing him.

“The suspect took a two-handed shooting stance and pointed an object at the approaching officers, two of whom were in uniform,” said NYPD Chief of Department Terence Monahan at a press conference after the shooting.

Police did not recover a gun at the scene, but instead found a metal pipe that they said Vassell had pointed at people.

James announced her decision to not bring charges against the officers on March 29, less than a week before the anniversary of Vassell’s death.

“The officers’ actions were legally justified, and there was no adequate evidence to warrant criminal prosecution against the officers involved,” the attorney general’s Special Investigations Prosecutions Unit said in a statement.

It was not the outcome Vassell’s family had hoped for. “We are scared, because they are murderers still out there,” Eric Vassell, Saheed Vassell’s father, told the Brooklyn Eagle.

“And just like how my son was killed, other family members are scared also that their loved one can be killed.”

Some New York politicians also criticized the attorney general’s decision.

“We’re not holding individuals accountable, and also we’re not holding systems accountable,” said Councilmember Brad Lander at Wednesday’s rally.

“We have no systemic accountability because we have not put in place a system with compassion that can see people and that can keep communities safe without having people like Saheed get killed, and we got an individual level failure because we’re not holding anybody accountable,” Lander said.

“We felt disrespected not only at the attorney general’s decision, but at how we were treated as a victim’s family,” Eric Vassell said. “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.”

“We are scared, because they are murderers still out there,” said Eric Vassell, Saheed Vassel’s father. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane
“We are scared, because they are murderers still out there,” said Eric Vassell, Saheed Vassell’s father. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane
“We don’t believe the NYPD narrative," said Lorna Vassell. "We never did.” Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane
“We don’t believe the NYPD narrative,” said Lorna Vassell. “We never did.” Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane

James did outline recommendations for the NYPD to avoid similar situations in the future.

Her office suggested that police dispatchers receive “comprehensive critical incident training” and that the NYPD “review and reform its public information policies and practices regarding which facts it should release to the public in police-involved uses of force.”

The Attorney General’s Office found that information about Vassell’s mental health released to the media by police sources came from sealed records and “should not have been publicly released.”

“Release of such information served no useful purpose except to denigrate Mr. Vassell,” the report reads.

Vassell’s shooting also reignited a debate over how police handle emotionally disturbed persons.

“He was suffering from bipolar disorder,” Eric Vassell said. “But that did not stop Saheed from being a person.”

Vassell is one of 14 mentally ill people who have been killed in New York by police in the last three years, THE CITY reported.

“The reason we are continuing to have this problem is that we are giving a criminal response to a medical problem,” said Public Advocate Jumaane Williams at a press conference Thursday. “That is fundamentally what we need to change in this system.”

Nora Ford, Saheed Vassell's aunt. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane
Nora Ford, Saheed Vassell’s aunt. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane
Community members at the vigil carried signs displaying the facts of Saheed Vassell's death. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane
Community members at the vigil carried signs displaying the facts of Saheed Vassell’s death. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane

Saheed Vassell’s parents continue to push for the city to hold the cops who shot their son accountable.

They have made it clear they want the mayor to fire the officers involved, but they have also made calls for de Blasio to place those involved on modified duty, bring disciplinary charges against them, and also release the names of all the cops who were on the scene.

They said they believe the NYPD shaped a false narrative around their son’s shooting. “The first thing the NYPD did was blame him for his own death,” said Lorna Vassell, Saheed Vassell’s mother.

“We don’t believe the NYPD narrative. We never did,” she said. Lorna Vassell does not think her son was holding anything when he was shot. She said that’s what witnesses on the scene told her.

For the family, the passage of time has yet to heal the wound of losing Vassell.

“We are not doing good. We are very sad. We are very sad knowing that it’s going to be a year,” Eric Vassell said the day before the anniversary.

“When you remember that my son was murdered April 4, it brings back every memory of that day, what took place on that day. It’s like you’re experiencing everything that happened all over again.”

Follow reporter Noah Goldberg on Twitter.

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