Clarke welcomes investigation into police shooting death of Jamaican national

This April 5, 2018 surveillance video image provided by the New York Police Department shows Saheed Vassell brandishing a metal object at the scene where officers fatally shot him after he was reported to be threatening people with a gun, which turned out to be a metal pipe that police mistook for a firearm, in the Brooklyn borough of New York.
New York Police Department via Associated Press

Brooklyn Congresswoman Yvette D. Clarke on Thursday welcomed the announcement by New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman that he will conduct an investigation into the police shooting death of an emotionally disturbed Jamaican national Wednesday evening.

Responding to 911 calls that a black man was pointing what appeared to be a silver gun at passersby on the corner of Montgomery Street and Utica Avenue in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, officers from the New York City Police Department (NYPD) shot dead Saheed Vassell, 34.

Utica Avenue is a busy thoroughfare in Brooklyn.

The NYPD said Vassell, who migrated from Jamaica when he was six years old, had pointed the instrument at five police officers, who responded to the 911 calls, before he was shot dead.

Police later said the instrument was actually a metal pipe with a knob on it.

“By all accounts, Saheed Vassell was loved by his neighbors. He frequented local fruit stands and businesses in the Crown Heights neighborhood and lived within two blocks of where he was gunned down. Though he suffered from mental health challenges, he was no criminal,” Clarke, the daughter of Jamaican immigrants, who represents Crown Heights, among other neighborhoods, in the 9th Congressional District in Brooklyn, told Caribbean Life.

“Saheed, like Dwayne Jeune of East Flatbush, and Erickson Brito of Brownsville [sections of Brooklyn] all suffered from an emotional disorder at the time of their deaths,” she added. They should not have lost their lives.

“We must not accept the criminalization of men and women suffering from mental illness as the status quo,” Clarke demanded. “The Crown Heights community expects law enforcement to protect and serve every person, regardless of race, gender, socio-economic status, or health status. It is well past time for mandatory cultural competency and mental health de-escalation training for our officers.

“I’m grateful to New York State Attorney General, Eric Schneiderman, for opening a formal investigation into the death of Saheed and trust that the investigation will be both thorough and transparent,” the congresswoman continued. “My staff and I will monitor the Attorney General’s progress.”

Clarke said she looks forward to working with elected officials in ensuring that “the appropriate focus is given to addressing the mentally ill and their interactions with NYPD, and proper, clear and transparent protocols are in place to make sure that lethal force is used as a last resort when interacting with the mentally ill of our communities, so we can avoid losing another life to unnecessary violence.”

New York State Senator Jesse Hamilton, who also represents Crown Heights in his 20th New York State district, also said a full investigation was also needed into Vassell’s shooting.

“As a society, we have to make the message ‘Black Lives Matter’ clear on our streets, clear to all charged with law enforcement, and up and down our justice system,” he said. “We should demand sound policing, quality police work — the best training, decision making, and accountability from the men and women serving as police officers.

“Police accountability matters; only through accountability and mutual respect can we heal police-community relations, instill trust and build confidence,” he added. “We need to take the steps across government, including police, including our justice system, and including people of good conscience, to protect all New Yorkers.”

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams said he had messaged Schneiderman Thursday morning, thanking him for “opening an investigation into the police shooting of Saheed Vassell in Crown Heights.

“Tragedies like this are why we fought for an independent Special Investigations and Prosecutions Unit,” he said. “We must all pursue justice.”

Angry protesters Thursday evening held a vigil at the site where Vassell was gunned down, demanding justice in his shooting.

Saheed’s mother, Lorna Vassell, said, at the vigil and protest, that her son came from a good family, adding that the police “have no right to shoot him down the way how they did it, because Saheed is no gunman.”

She then shouted: “Justice for Saheed!”

Congresswoman Yvette D. Clarke addressing a Guyanese audience at Brooklyn Borough Hall recently.
Photo by Tangerine Clarke

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