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The Shooting of "Sy"

Witness statements contradict the NYPD's official narrative of the police shooting of Saheed Vassell

· News

Reporting: Victor Dempsey and Nissa Tzun

Photos: Emily Pederson

*Victor Dempsey, the brother of Delrawn Small of Brooklyn, who was killed by off-duty NYPD officer Wayne Isaacs on July 4th, 2016, was on the scene shortly after the incident happened to give support to the victim’s family and speak to witnesses about they saw. The following article is a collaborative effort between Victor Dempsey, Nissa Tzun, and Emily Pederson.

Two weeks after the extrajudicial killing of unarmed Stephon Clark of Sacramento in his grandmother’s backyard, another unarmed African American man was shot to death by police this afternoon, this time in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. On the corner of Utica Avenue and Montgomery Street, Saheed Vassell, 34, who was walking the street, was shot to death by three plainclothes officers and one officer in uniform. At least nineteen rounds were fired, and the incident was witnessed by over thirty-seven community members, and was recorded by numerous store security cameras.

Saheed "Crazy Sha" Vassell.  Source:  Facebook

Saheed Vassell. Photo courtesy of Facebook.

10 years ago Vassell lost his best friend Marlon to a police shooting in the same neighborhood and the incident set him off on path of mental illness. His family supported him in getting help and he had been receiving treatment for bipolar disorder for the last 8 years.

Vassell was a familiar character in the Caribbean neighborhood. People knew him as “Sy" and "Shredda" and walking up and down the street was a part of his daily routine. He walked and spoke differently than the average person and his movements were noticeably peculiar. Despite this, his behavior was accepted because he was well known in the community. He would often be spotted interacting with people on the street with lifted spirits, and was not a stranger to kindness. Several community members said that he was a friendly man and would help people with their groceries. A social worker in the community said that Vassell usually had something in his hands to play with, a coping mechanism special needs individuals sometimes use to deal with their anxiety.

When Victor Dempsey arrived on the scene, Vassell’s family had just returned from King’s County Hospital where Vassell had been taken. Dempsey was able to connect with Vassell’s grandmother, sister, father and son. They reported to Dempsey that the hosptial had denied them access to Vassell’s body. The family was notified by hospital personnel that they could not allow them access because they considered Vassell a “John Doe,” since he did not carry identification with him, but a member of Community for Police Reform was able to speak candidly with a hospital worker that informed them that they were instructed by the NYPD not to allow the family to view the body and to let them know he had already been taken to the morgue. In hearing this, Dempsey called several elected officials, New York Councilmen Charles Barron, Jumaani Williams, and councilwoman Alika Samuel. The elected officials called the hospital and were able to leverage with them and secure a viewing of Saheed’s body tomorrow morning.

While this may seem alarming to some, it is quite common for the NYPD to create obstacles for the family to see their loved one after they have been brutalized or shot by law enforcement. Natasha Duncan, the sister of police murder victim, Shantel Davis, who was also killed in broad daylight in Brooklyn stated, "Shantel went to the hospital as 'Jane Doe,' and they gave us the runaround as well. We weren't allowed to see the body until the next morning. This is their tactic."

The parents of Nicholas Heyward, Jr., who was only 13 when he was gunned down on the 14th floor stairwell of the Gowanus Houses in September of 1994, were also denied access to their son. Angela Heyward who begged to see her child while he was bleeding on the ground after having been shot was denied access at the scene. The NYPD also disallowed her to accompany her son to the hospital in the ambulance, and when both parents arrived at St. Vincent Hospital they were continually denied access to Nicholas Jr. Nicholas Heyward, Sr. and Angela Heyward never got to see their son alive again.

Saheed using the pipe to horseplay with community members.  If the NYPD released the video Saheed would be seen using the pipe to tap  rather than pose as a firearm.

A surveillance video captured Vassell pointing a pipe at people walking on the street. Photo courtesy of the internet.

Witnesses state that Vassell was walking on the street using the pipe in his hand as a way to fool around with neighborhood people. Witnesses say he wasn't aggressive and that he was tapping people on the shoulder with it. The security camera photo in which the police have released showing Vassell pointing the pipe at a man was paused at a moment that supports their official narrative, that Vassell was terrorizing the community with an object that looked like a firearm. However, witnesses who saw the interaction say that Vassell was actually tapping this man with it, in which the man responded with laughter because that’s what Vassell was known to do - play and joke around with community members.

It has not been uncommon for the NYPD to alter video footage to protect their officers. In February, 2012, Ramarley Graham In the case of Ramarley Graham in February of 2012, a young Jamaican teen who was walking home from hanging out with his friends, the NYPD released an altered video of a young man running, to support their narrative that Ramarley was being pursued by police. However, unbeknownst to the NYPD there was a surveillance camera by the house that captured the actual incident of the breaking and entering into Ramarley's family home. When the footage was released it was clear that Ramarley had no idea he was being pursued by police, and he walked up casually to his home, opened it, walked in and closed the door. A few seconds later you see two police officers breaking down the door and entering.

Right before the shooting, Vassell was visiting Kev's Barbershop where he frequented on a daily basis. Customers of the shop stated that Vassell was a fun character in the neighborhood and would often go into the shop to mess with the barbers and customers, share laughs, leave and then come back again later. Upon leaving the shop, he was confronted by two unmarked cars on the corner of Utica Avenue and Montgomery Street. Four officers exited their vehicles (three plainclothes, one in uniform) and immediately had their guns pointed at Vassell. He responded, “What the fuck did I do!” as his hands were going up and the four officers unloaded nineteen rounds in which ten struck Vassell’s body.

The family has received no notifications or communications from the police, and all of the storefront security cameras have been confiscated by the NYPD, a known unofficial protocol of the NYPD after a police-related fatalities, like in the cases of Shantel Davis of Flatbush and Briana Ojeda of Boerum Hill.

Neighbors and activists gather at the scene were Saheed Vassell, 36, was shot hours earlier at Utica Avenue and Montgomery Street, Brooklyn, NY.  Photo:  Emily Pederson

Community members flood the scene where Saheed Vassell was shot to death by NYPD. Brooklyn, NY, April 4, 2018. Photo by Emily Pedersen

Community members flooded the scene as the NYPD presence also grew. For several hours after the incident, community members watched the NYPD handle the crime scene. The officers were not wearing body cameras so there will be no release of any body camera footage of the shooting. The community has called for a rally and march tomorrow at 6PM, on the corner of Utica Avenue and Montgomery Street, Brooklyn, New York, where Saheed was killed. The rally is collaboratively organized by NYC Shut It Down, Black Lives Matter, Equality 4 Flatbush, People Power Assembly, and Worker's World.

Families United 4 Justice, a growing, nationwide collective of families impacted by police violence are currently organizing to support the family during this difficult time.

Neighbors and activists gather at the scene where Saheed Vassell, 36, was shot hours earlier at Utica Avenue and Montgomery Street, Brooklyn, NY.  April 4, 2018.  Photo:  Emily Pederson

Community members flood the scene where Saheed Vassell was shot to death by NYPD. Brooklyn, NY, April 4, 2018. Photo by Emily Pedersen