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How the investigation into the NYPD’s fatal shooting of Crown Heights man will unfold

AG Eric Schneiderman’s office has taken over 17 fatal police shootings since a 2015 executive order.

Saheed Vassell's family rallied with elected officials including

Saheed Vassell's family rallied with elected officials including Councilman Carlos Menchaca, who promised to hold the NYPD accountable from the steps of City Hall steps on April 12, 2018. Photo Credit: Rajvi Desai

Within hours Wednesday of NYPD officers’ fatal shooting of a bipolar man brandishing what turned out to be a welding torch, at least one investigator and one prosecutor from the state attorney general’s office were in Crown Heights scrutinizing the scene.

On Thursday, as Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has done in 17 police killings since a 2015 executive order meant to foster confidence in the criminal justice system, he asserted jurisdiction over a district attorney’s office in New York.

Now what?

Judging from Schneiderman’s past probes into killings by police, it could be months before his Special Investigations and Prosecutions Unit decides whether to criminally charge the four officers who the medical examiner says shot the man, Saheed Vassell, nine times after he allegedly crouched into a shooting stance and pointed the welding torch. (Reports were referring to the object as a pipe until police confirmed on Friday it was a tool for joining metals.)

On Friday, Schneiderman and personnel from the unit met with the Vassell family to extend condolences and explain the process — a meeting that’s typical for the start and end of such cases, said Schneiderman spokeswoman Amy Spitalnick.

Investigators and prosecutors probing killings by police typically interview witnesses, collect evidence, conduct independent autopsies, review 911 calls, analyze medical records and scrutinize the applicable law.

Among the evidence already made public, in an unusual move by the NYPD: multiple videos of Vassell menacing pedestrians with what turned out to be the welding torch, and civilian 911 calls like one where a caller tells an operator: “He looks like he is crazy but he’s pointing something at people that looks like a gun and he’s like popping it like he’s pulling the trigger.”

The NYPD also is reviewing the shooting, and an ad hoc “shooting team” made up of a representative from the force’s every rank will determine whether cops followed procedures and obeyed department rules; an officer can be subject to discipline even if no criminal charges are brought, according to Joseph Giacalone, a retired NYPD detective sergeant and adjunct professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Department policy, he said, calls for the four cops’ guns to be seized for analysis and the officers put on administrative duty pending the outcome of the probes.

The NYPD’s media office did not respond to a message seeking comment.

Handling the criminal probe is a team led by Alvin Bragg, Schneiderman’s chief deputy who oversees the unit. Bragg has been in charge of the unit since the executive order, which covers killings of unarmed civilians or where “there is a significant question as to whether the civilian was armed and dangerous,” took effect in 2015.

At least two personnel from the unit — the prosecutor and the investigator — were on the scene soon after Vassell was shot dead, according to a source familiar with the matter.

More from Bragg’s team are now involved, the source said.

Of the 17 cases the attorney general’s office has probed since Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the executive order in July 2015, to designate the office as special prosecutor in questionable police killings, Schneiderman’s unit has brought criminal charges in two cases:

— Joel Abelove, the sitting district attorney of upstate Rensselaer County, was indicted in December on charges that he obstructed the unit’s probe into the police killing of an unarmed man a year earlier in Troy during a traffic stop. According to Schneiderman’s office, Abelove defied the attorney general’s assertion of jurisdiction, “surreptitiously” convened his own grand jury, withheld evidence and conferred immunity on an officer, which foreclosed the possibility of charges against the cop. The case is pending.

— Wayne Isaacs, an NYPD officer, was acquitted by a trial jury in November of murder and manslaughter charges in a case in which an off-duty Isaacs killed an unarmed man in Brooklyn whom Isaacs said had attacked him during a road-rage encounter.

If Schneiderman ultimately declines to pursue a criminal case, his office posts a comprehensive report about a fatality, detailing the circumstances, evidence, actions and names of any officer involved, any policy changes he thinks should be made by a police department, and why, in his view, a criminal charge is unwarranted under current law.

That’s what happened in February, when Schneiderman’s office did not charge a Buffalo police officer who nearly nine months earlier shot dead an unarmed man in the back who was running away: The cop mistakenly believed that his partner had been shot, Schneiderman’s office concluded.

Tina Luongo, chief defender of the Legal Aid Society’s criminal practice, said through a spokesman that she backs Schneiderman taking jurisdiction in the case and said the NYPD should disclose the officers’ names immediately.

“New Yorkers need to know if these officers have unscrupulous histories,” she said. “We cannot allow the NYPD to police their own, and support the attorney general’s appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate this killing.”

The NYPD is delaying its determination about whether to discipline the officers until after Schneiderman’s office finishes its probe, said Giacalone.

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