Police officers in New York City fatally shot an unarmed black man who was pointing what appeared to be a gun at them on Wednesday, police said.
The object turned out to be a metal pipe with a knob on the end. The man reportedly suffered from mental illness including bipolar disorder.
Officers responded to three 911 calls at around 4:40 p.m. describing a man wielding “a silver firearm,” who was “pointing it at people on the street,” on a corner in the Crown Heights neighborhood in Brooklyn, the NYPD Chief of Department Terence Monahan told reporters.
Four of the five police officers who responded to the scene fired on the man after he took a “two-handed shooting stance and pointed an object at the approaching officers,” Monahan said.
The man, identified by The New York Times as 34-year-old Saheed Vassell, was pronounced dead at Kings County Hospital.
Vassell’s father Eric Vassell told the Times his son had bipolar disorder and had been hospitalized multiple times in recent years.
Eric Vassell told the New York Daily News that his son refused treatment and had not taken medication for the condition in years.
“We were always worried for him. We would say should anything happen to him, we just have to do what we can do,” he told the newspaper.
Residents told news outlets that the younger Vassell was well-known in the neighborhood as “mentally ill but generally harmless.”
“All he did was just walk around the neighborhood,” 38-year-old Andre Wilson, who said he knew Vassell for 20 years, told the Daily News. “He speaks to himself, usually he has an orange Bible or a rosary in his hand. He never had a problem with anyone.”
“Every cop in this neighborhood knows him,” resident John Fuller told the Times, saying police should have been familiar with Vassell enough to not shoot him.
Three of the four officers who fired at Vassell were not in uniform, Monahan said. He told reporters they fired a total of 10 rounds at Vassell. None of them were wearing body cameras.
The New York Times spoke to witnesses, who said that “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.”
Vassell had a 15-year-old son with former partner Sherlan Smith, 36. She told the Daily News: “He was a good father. He wasn’t a bad person. No matter how they want to spin it, he wasn’t a bad person. … Too many black people are dying at hands of police officers and it’s about time something be done.”
As many as 200 onlookers gathered at the scene, resident Shaya Tenenbaum told The Associated Press, and several of them shouted at police. Protesters carrying Black Lives Matter signs arrived later in the evening, the Times reports.
Members of the crowd “wept” at how the shooting fell on the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.
The police shooting of Stephon Clark, another unarmed black man, ignited protests in Sacramento that have lasted weeks.