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April 9, 2018

Editorial: Wrong to Blame Cops

By Richard Steier

t was inevitable that in the wake of the fatal shooting of Saheed Vassell in Crown Heights last week, questions would be raised by some in the community once it was discovered that what he was holding in his hand while in a shooting position was not a gun but a metal pipe.

They focused on Mr. Vassell being a kind of neighborhood character who suffered from mental illness but was described by friends and family as basically harmless. And so they asked: Couldn’t cops have waited a bit longer before firing once he pointed the silver object at them as though ready to fire it? Didn’t they know the neighborhood well enough to realize he wasn’t someone who would use deadly force and was just indulging in a very strange form of fooling around?

But the officers who responded didn’t have any of the kind of information that might have allowed them to wait a bit to see what developed. What they did have was a series of 911 calls in which people reported someone acting in a menacing fashion with what looked like a gun. Video released by the NYPD following the shooting showed the reactions of some of those approached by Mr. Vassell—they were clearly scared, if not necessarily convinced he was about to shoot them.

He may have been, as was described by some who knew him, the doting father of a teenager and a decent person. But he was also someone with serious mental illness who his father said repeatedly failed to take the medication that was meant to control it. And his actions put him in position to be the victim of a tragic misunderstanding, in which the officers who encountered him had reason to perceive him as a potentially deadly threat and acted accordingly.