The police description of why three plainclothes and two uniform cops* took him out is both “perfect” and makes no sense.
“The suspect then took a two-handed shooting stance and pointed an object at the approaching officers,” the chief said, holding up a surveillance photo of a blurry figure standing next to a bodega ice machine with his arms outstretched.
Why would a person holding a piece of pipe with a knob on the end, described by some as a shower head, do such a thing unless he was trying to commit suicide by cop? You can’t shoot someone with a pipe and a knob. It’s crazy.
But then, 34-year-old Saheed Vassell was bipolar, refused his meds and was well-known in the neighborhood for being disturbed. Harmless, but disturbed.
Rocky Brown, 45, who knew him for years, said he was a friendly man who was mentally ill.
“He’s harmless,” Mr. Brown said. “A very willing guy, a very nice guy, a good guy.”
One would similarly expect the cops to be aware of Vassell as well, and aware that he had issues.
The Police Department had encountered the man before and classified him as emotionally disturbed, and the shooting raised questions about what the officers at the scene knew about him.
There were, according to the police, three 911 calls about a man with a silver gun. Assuming this to be true, they arrived with the mindset that they were dealing with a potential shooter. They arrived with the idea in their head that someone could die, so the First Rule of Policing took precedence. But did they just shoot?
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.
According to the New York Times, however, another witness heard an exchange before the shooting.
Witnesses said the police officers appeared to fire almost immediately after they got to the corner around 4:45 p.m. Some of the witnesses said they did not hear the officers say anything to the man before firing, while another witness said she heard the officers and the man exchange some words.
There was the still from an undisclosed video shown to “prove” Vassell took the cop-speak “two-handed shooting stance,” but without video, the image fails to connect up to what occurred with the police. Did Vassell really take that stance, almost certain to get him killed, or was that just a random screen-grab used to create the narrative for the initial press conference?
It’s not as if any of the cops had body cams to show what happened, what they say.
And then there’s the “weapon,” the “slim, curved silver pipe with a cylindrical knob at the end of it.” Was that mistaken to be a gun in the daylight of Crown Heights?
Without context, something to compare it to, to measure it by, the image provides little help. Was it “gun-size,” or much larger? Is it a shower head or what? Vassell was known in the neighborhood to pick up and play with the flotsam of the street.
He loved to dance and was widely known to be mentally ill. People said he had a penchant for picking things up off the street — cigarette lighters, empty bottles and other curbside flotsam — and playing with them like toys.
Obviously, Vassell couldn’t “shoot” officers with this pipe, and equally obviously there would be no reason for him to take a “two-handed shooting stance” unless he wanted to die. There is nothing here to suggest that this was suicide by cop.
At the same time, people who are bipolar and off their meds can do inexplicable things. If the 911 calls came in with “man with a gun,” their mindset of death, the assumption that this was a scenario where they might kill or be killed, would likely have framed their perspective. But at the same time, this had nothing to do with Vassell, whom by all accounts was a harmless mentally ill guy, known and liked in the neighborhood.
Do we default to believing the cops given the absence of complete clarity and consistency by witnesses and no video, at least not yet, to conclusively show what happened? There is the statement by Chief of Department Terence A. Monahan at the post-killing press conference.
“The suspect then took a two-handed shooting stance and pointed an object at the approaching officers,” Chief Monahan said.
It’s perfect. Too perfect. It’s the way cops craft a statement designed to foreclose doubt out of a messy, maybe murderous, situation.
Was this Vassell? Was this what the cops saw when they arrived and opened fire? No witness said so, even if one did say there was an exchange of words rather than an execution, as Hinds says. And even if it’s assumed this was him, the question remains.
“We hear the first shot, the guy went down and then they started firing again,” said Angie, who declined to give her last name.
A total of ten rounds were fired. If he was taken down and no longer a threat, and there was a hiatus between the first round and the following nine, was it necessary? There are reported to be videos of the shooting, and perhaps they will provide clarification of what happened, but for now, the “two-handed shooting stance” remains the police narrative. And it’s just too perfect.
*According to the New York Times account, only one plainclothes officer did the shooting. Other accounts vary.