Questions remain after NYPD officers fatally shoot man in Crown Heights

CROWN HEIGHTS, Brooklyn — The case of Saheed Vassell is unfolding in Crown Heights, a neighborhood already saddled with a complicated history of race relations.

And the headline involves, once again, a black man, shot and killed by police.

“We are gonna miss him. We can’t get back his life. He was a good person, he wasn’t a bad person,” said one of Vassell’s friend, Alex Willie.

But Vassell had known mental health issues and several people called 911 after he was seen randomly approaching people aiming a pipe, that looked like a silver handgun.

Police officials say that’s exactly what the responding officers thought he drew on them when they rolled up to the scene, opened fire, and killed Vassell, a block away from his home.

Witnesses say they did so – without warning.

“What about ‘freeze’? What about ‘drop your weapon?'" said eyewitness Kevin Davis.

Still, there are some tough questions surrounding this case, specifically about how neatly it fits into the narrative of other controversial fatal police shootings of black men and the role of community policing in incidents just like this one.

“Better they should have some police who know people in the community," Willie said. "And don’t send some new cops around who don’t know us."

Maki Haberfeld, Director of Police Science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, says there is no formal policy requiring officers to announce themselves, or order a suspect to drop a weapon, before opening fire.

“The patrol guide of the NYPD will ask officers to identify themselves, and ask the suspect to drop the gun. But like everything else, with the use of force, it is discretion of the officers, or the officers, on the scene,” said Haberfeld.

It’s worth noting that a week and a half before the police killed Vassell in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, NYPD officers on Staten Island approached Lori Gjenashj’s vehicle, when she got out holding a real starter pistol – not a pipe.

NYPD officials say the two police officers discharged five rounds, striking her one time the shoulder.

Brooklyn City Councilman Jumaane Williams says while every case is different, too often black men, and men of color in general often experience different – more tragic outcome during police encounters.

“People need to be concerned in general about unarmed black people seemed to be getting killed. And we can drill down on each one, but black people are getting shot and killed, on a fairly regular basis. We need to figure out why,” said Williams.