And Again

[Content Note: Police brutality; death; racism; disablism.]

Saheed Vassell, a 34-year-old Black man, has been fatally shot by police in Brooklyn who claim to have erroneously believed he was brandishing a gun:
A black man has been shot dead by police in New York after he pointed a metal pipe at them.

Police had responded to emergency callers who said the man was aiming a firearm at pedestrians in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, an official said.

The man took a two-handed shooting stance and pointed an object at police and three plainclothes officers and one uniformed officer shot 10 times, the chief of department, Terence Monahan, told a news conference.

"This was a call of a man pointing what 911 callers and people felt was a gun at people on the street," Monahan said. "When we encounter him, he turns with what appears to be a gun at officers."

...Andre Wilson, 38, told the Daily News that he had known the victim for 20 years, describing him as a quirky neighborhood character.

"All he did was just walk around the neighborhood," he said. "He speaks to himself, usually he has an orange Bible or a rosary in his hand. He never had a problem with anyone."
My condolences to the man's family, friends, and community. I am so sorry.

A couple of points:

1. Though the official police account is that there were 911 calls saying the man was aiming a firearm, the official police account in the immediate aftermath of a police shooting often turns out to be a lie. I would not take it on faith that emergency calls specifically alleging the man was aiming a firearm exist unless and until the police make public recordings of those calls.

Naturally, the police have every incentive to assert that emergency calls said the man had a gun, which simultaneously redirects responsibility for their presumption of a gun and serves as pardon: "It wasn't just us — other people thought he had a gun, too." Never mind that it isn't the job of average people to distinguish between a gun and a pipe, but it is the job of police. (Or should be.)

2. Based on Andre Wilson's description of the man, it sounds as though he may have been mentally ill, which would make this yet another case in which the victim of a police shooting was disabled. In 2015, a Washington Post analysis of 385 fatal police shootings in the first five months of that year found: "Ninety-two victims — nearly a quarter of those killed — were identified by police or family members as mentally ill." [ETA: See update below.]


Policing in the United States was never actually about keeping everyone safe, despite our many nostalgic narratives for a time that never really existed. But there was a time when police intimately knew the communities they policed, and losing that is one of many factors that contributes to police killings, perhaps especially of disabled people.

UPDATE: A report at the New York Daily News contains the information that Vassell was indeed mentally ill: His family says he was bipolar, but had been refusing treatment.

Further, although NYPD Chief of Department Terence Monahan said at a press conference that police shot at Vassell only after they approached him and he turned to face them then "took a two-handed shooting stance and pointed an object at the approaching officers," at least one witness disputes that account:
Jaccbot Hinds, 40, who witnessed the shooting said officers jumped out of their unmarked police car and fired without warning.

"They just hopped out of the car. It's almost like they did a hit. They didn't say please. They didn't say put your hands up, nothing," Hinds said.

The NYPD refused to say if the responding officers warned Vassell before firing.
The timeline seems to support Hinds' account: "Police can be heard on emergency radio saying they were on scene at about 4:42 p.m. and 27 seconds later, officers were calling for an ambulance. The NYPD did not give an explanation when asked about that timeline."

Within that 27 seconds, the officers "fired 10 shots, striking Vassell multiple times."

Additionally, of the four officers on scene, only one of them was wearing a uniform. The other three were in plainclothes, which could make it difficult for anyone to quickly discern that they were being approached by police, as opposed to strangers aiming weapons at them.

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