The family of Saheed Vassell, whom four cops shot dead on April 4, demanded more transparency from the NYPD on the steps of City Hall Thursday.
NYPD should release the names of the officers involved in the shooting, as well as all unedited videos of the incident that shows how the cops reacted to Vassell, his sister, Telah Vassell, demanded while surrounded by dozens of police reform advocates.
“No justice, no peace,” “Black lives they matter here,” and “Hey hey, ho ho, killer cops have got to go” chants abounded from community members holding up signs demanding “full transparency” from Mayor Bill de Blasio and Police Commissioner James O’Neill.
The 34-year-old Vassell, who officials said suffered from mental health problems, went up to several pedestrians brandishing what turned out to be a welding instrument, an edited video released by the NYPD shows. After at least three 911 calls, cops are seen responding to the scene on the corner of Montgomery Street and Utica Avenue, another video shows. Vassell took a “shooting stance,” upon which four cops fired 10 rounds, killing him, police said.
Telah Vassel asked the police department: “What are your protocols when it comes to responding to a call of an individual that might have a weapon? What are your protocols to responding to an individual that has been identified as a possible mentally disturbed personnel? Why shoot to kill?”
Police identified two of the officers who responded to the scene as members of the Strategic Response Group, an NYPD unit that shows up during “citywide mobilizations, civil disorders and major events,” with “specialized equipment,” according to the NYPD website.
“Why were SRG, a militarized strategic force, responding to a 911 call?” Vassell’s brother, Andwele Vassell, asked.
Since the shooting, the NYPD has engaged in a “nonstop PR campaign” to protect the officers, Anthonine Pierre, deputy director of the Brooklyn Movement Center, said, adding that the police should stop “selectively releasing information,” referring to videos that show Vassell accosting bystanders before the shooting.
In agreement, Councilman Jumaane Williams said that he had watched unedited videos that are currently unavailable to the public, and claims “the majority of people” who came across Vassell holding the welding instrument were not threatened by him. Williams questioned what the officers on the scene did or did not know about Vassell.
Advocates also called for the NYPD to release the officers’ disciplinary records, a practice that is prohibited by Section 50-A of the New York State Civil Rights Law, which states that “personnel record of police officers…shall be considered confidential and not subject to inspection or review” without written consent from the police officer in question.
A Manhattan appeals court held up the decades-old law when challenged by the New York Civil Liberties Union and the Legal Aid Society in two separate lawsuits, prohibiting the public release of police officers’ records in a decision issued on March 29, 2017, the New York Times reported.
“We believe that this is a law that needs to be changed,” Williams said. “I don’t see any pressure on the state to change [the law]. I don’t understand why they have created [the law].”
The current protocol of withholding police officers’ records strikes the right balance, which “protects the safety and confidentiality of our officers,” de Blasio said at a public safety conference held at the entrance of the Atlantic Avenue-Barclays Center subway station Thursday. An ongoing investigation by the NYPD and another independent investigation by state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman will be the “right venue to determine whatever actions are needed next,” he added.
Advocates copied Schneiderman on a letter they sent to de Blasio and O’Neill, which was signed by 50 advocacy organizations and condemned the “lack of transparency” within the NYPD. The letter highlights past police shootings, especially the 2012 death of Ramarley Graham, a teen who was shot by a police officer in the Bronx.
Graham’s mother, Constance Malcolm, who stood in solidarity with Vassell’s family, filed a lawsuit a year ago against the NYPD when they didn’t comply with a Freedom of Information request.
“All they want to know is what happened to their son,” she said, holding back tears. “I’ve been waiting for six years. Please don’t let this family wait that long.”