The state attorney general's office is opening an investigation into the deadly NYPD shooting of a 34-year-old man who cops say pointed a metal pipe at officers responding to several 911 calls in Brooklyn.
The announcement from Eric Schneiderman's office came Thursday morning, less than 18 hours after the man, identified as Saheed Vassell, was shot and killed on a street in Crown Heights by officers who mistook the pipe for a gun.
“The Attorney General’s Special Investigations and Prosecutions Unit has opened an investigation into the death of Saheed Vassell, pursuant to the Attorney General’s authority under Executive Order No. 147," the attorney general's press office said in a statement. "We’re committed to conducting an independent, comprehensive, and fair investigation.”
That executive order appoints the AG special prosecutor to oversee investigations into deadly police shootings of unarmed civilians or cases where there are questions as to whether the civilian was armed and dangerous.
Cops say they shot Vassell after officers responding to three 911 calls about a man pointing a gun at people arrived at the scene Wednesday evening and thought he was doing just that. No gun was recovered at the scene.
The city medical examiner's office ruled his death a homicide on Thursday, but noted that the term is not a criminal finding and only refers to the fact that Vassell was killed by other people.
An autopsy revealed he was struck by nine bullets; one in the head, two in the chest, one in the belly, one in each arm and three in his lower body. He suffered fatal brain, aorta and spinal cord injuries in the shooting, according to the city medical examiner's office.
Mayor de Blasio said Thursday that transcripts of those three 911 calls would be released to the public, saying of the shooting, "This is a very painful situation; it is a tragedy by any measure."
Vassell was well-known in the neighborhood, according to his family. His parents Eric and Lorna Vassell tell News 4 he had bipolar disorder but was a "good person." They said they're not angry, but "hurt" that they say police didn't give him a warning to drop the pipe before opening fire.
Another neighborhood resident described Vassell as a mentally ill man who sometimes talked to himself but should not have been shot.
NYPD officials say the cops who responded to the 911 calls thought he was about to fire on them. Chief of Department Terence Monahan said Vassell "took a two-handed shooting stance and pointed at" the four officers who encountered him at Utica Avenue and Montgomery Street. The cops fired 10 shots.
After the shooting, the officers approached to administer aid, Monahan said. It was then that they discovered the man had not been holding a gun, but a pipe with a knob at the end. Vassell was pronounced dead at a hospital.
"This was not an EDP (Emotionally Disturbed Person) call... this was a call of a man pointing what 911 callers felt was a gun at people on the street," Monahan said Wednesday. "When we encounter him, he turns with what appears to be a gun at the officers. We have to stay straight on the facts with this incident."
None of the officers were wearing body cameras at the time of the shooting, but Monahan held up surveillance photos from the scene that showed Vassell pointing an object at people walking by beforehand.
Another surveillance image obtained by News 4 clearly shows Vassell pointing the silver pipe at a person on Utica Avenue in the middle of what appears to be a running stride.
Witness Jack Hinds said the officers started firing nearly immediately.
"It's almost like they did a hit," Hinds said. "They didn't say 'freeze,' they didn't say 'put your hands up,' they didn't say 'stop for a minute.' They just started shooting."
After the shooting, dozens of Crown Heights residents crowded around police lines, some apparently angry. Later, residents could be heard shouting "black lives matter" and "stop killing us" at officers at the scene. But the crowd remained peaceful and dispersed later on Wednesday.
A rally is planned for Thursday afternoon in the neighborhood as a memorial featuring "Black Lives Matter" and "Rest in Power Saheed" signs grows.
Vassell's parents say their son was Jamaican and moved to the city with his family when he was 4 years old.
Wednesday's shooting comes amid nationwide uproar over the fatal police shooting of an unarmed black man, Stephon Clark, in Sacramento, California. In that case, officers responding to a call about someone breaking windows shot and killed the 22-year-old Clark in his grandmother's backyard.
Officers said they fired their weapons because they believed Clark was holding a gun, though he was holding only a cellphone.