Late Thursday morning, two plainclothes cops set to scrubbing away the blood that had been spilled at the corner of Utica Avenue and Montgomery Street the afternoon before, which happened to be the 50th anniversary of Rev. Martin Luther King’s assassination.
This day in Brooklyn was cold enough that steam rose from the hot water that one of the cops periodically poured on the pavement. A rasping sound came as the other cop worked a broom back and forth.
“We’re good,” the cop with the bucket then said.
The rasping sound ceased as the cop with the broom stopped scrubbing. A captain and an inspector joined in pulling down the plastic crime scene tape that had been used to close off the corner in the aftermath of the shooting.
The more stubborn stains remained, wet and glistening as if fresh again as a woman named Denise Dehaney came down the reopened sidewalk with her 5-year-old son, Miles, and 8-year-old daughter, Violet.
“Don’t walk in the blood,” Dehaney told them.
Miles and Violet dutifully stepped around blood from the multiple bullet wounds that 34-year-old Saheed Vassell suffered late Wednesday afternoon, after he strode down broad Utica Avenue clutching a shower head pipe as if it were a pistol. Surveillance video later released by the police show that he approached several people, including someone with a small child, and pointed the pipe just as you might a gun, causing several of them to cringe in unmistakable fright.
“There’s a guy walking around the street, he looks like he’s crazy, but he’s pointing something at people that looks like a gun and he’s, like, popping it as if like if he’s pulling the trigger,” the transcript from one 911 call reads.
Another 911 call began, “There is a guy in a brown jacket walking around pointing…”
The caller paused to consult with others at the scene, asking, “What is he pointing in people’s faces?”
The caller then informed the dispatcher “They say it’s a gun, it’s silver.”
The dispatcher asked another caller, “He has a gun, Ma’am? He has a gun?”
“Yes,” the caller said.
“Where is the gun?” the dispatcher asked. “Where is it?”
“His hand,” the caller replied.
The last person Vassell approached was Kevin, the proprietor of Kev’s Unique Barber Shop on Montgomery Street. Kevin, who declined to provide The Daily Beast with his last name, was not frightened by Vassell, who was a regular at the shop, sweeping up or just hanging out. Vassell was continuing on across the street when a police car appeared.
“He walked across the street, cops come around, make a U-turn, get out the car, they didn’t say, ‘Freeze!’ They didn’t say, ‘Drop your weapon,’” Kev later told The Daily Beast. “They just start shooting. I saw everything. I was the last person he confronted before he went across the street.”
Kev added, “I even ran to the car and tried to get their attention, but they were like no. Boom. I would call it a cold-blooded murder. Trust me, I saw it. If they had come out the car and said ‘Freeze, drop your weapon,’ he would’ve dropped it. They didn’t give him a chance, came out the car with their guns drawn.”
But surveillance video indicates that Vassell had also seen the cops and turned toward them, raising his pipe with both hands, as if in a combat stance with a pistol. He almost certainly would have appeared to the cops to be an instant away from firing, which from their point of view would have left them without an instant to order him to drop his weapon. Four of the five cops present fired.
Of the five, three were plainclothes anti-crime cops. Two others were from the Strategic Response Group, which often performs a counterterror functions but was reportedly in this part of Brooklyn in response to an uptick in crime. All the cops have to be considered brave for responding so immediately to multiple reports of a man with a gun.
What was apparently lacking among them was a cop who knew the neighborhood. Such a cop could have told the others that Vassell was a well-known figure on Utica Avenue who had a history of psychiatric problems as well as a criminal record and often carried the shower head pipe in his waistband, but was widely regarded as harmless and well-liked.
“He was very nice,” Denise Dehaney now said as she stood with her two children.
She added that Miles and Violet had been across the street with their grandmother on Wednesday and had just gone inside when the gunfire erupted. Vassell had fallen to the pavement and the cops had run up to him, first snapping on handcuffs, then administering CPR. He was rushed to Kings County Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
Back on Utica Avenue, a crime scene tape marked off the corner as technicians began taking photos and making measurements and collecting any possible forensics. Some of the neighborhood folks on the other side of the tape grew angry at the thought that an unarmed black man they considered harmless had been shot to death on the day that marked half a century since King’s murder. There was talk of killer cops and of an open season on blacks.
The 911 calls and video suggest that the cops would have been likely to fire no matter what the race of the person they perceived to be preparing to fire on them. What did come into play was the fear of guns. A particular cop may or may not be more likely to perceive a gun in the hand of a black person than in the hand of a white person, but it is the gun the cop fears. And guns are everywhere, even in New York, where the laws are strict and thousands are seized every year without incident. Vassell himself was arrested for weapon possession years ago.
The cops who rushed to the scene on Wednesday on hearing a report of a man with a gun were dashing into danger to save lives. They ended up taking one when they decided they were an instant away from possibly losing their own.
The Crime Scene Unit vehicle finally pulled away on Thursday morning. The two cops then set to scrubbing away what blood they could from the pavement. The tape then came down to signal that life on the street could continue as before, which is to say with too many guns and too little mental health care and not enough cops who know the neighborhood.
The NYPD is seeking to address that last problem with its neighborhood policing initiative. Let us hope that our leaders will do something about guns and mental health in time for the 100th anniversary of King’s assassination.
On the other side of Utica, a 10-year-old named Jaheim Hall stood outside the beauty parlor where his mother was doing a woman’s hair. Vassell would do chores in the shop, and Hall had known him for most of his young life.
“My first memory [of Vassell] is when I was 2, I was in there getting my braids and he came in there and he was like, ‘Hi!’ and he always said I was smart and he could see I was going to be a nice kid in the future… He called me The Little Boy because I was shorter than him. I called him The Bigger Boy.”
Hall also said, “He was a nice guy. He never bothers anybody. He would say hi to me. He always used to give me pounds and handshakes… He never used to bother anybody. He always had friends on this block.”
He remembered that at their last encounter, Vassell told him, “You’re getting a little bigger, but you got to grow a little more.”
Hall had soon after learned that Vassell had been killed directly across the street.
“I started crying,” Hall said.
Hall stood outside the beauty shop on Thursday as proof that Vassell was right to say he was smart and would be a nice boy in the future. Hall said he plans on becoming an architect.
“To help people have a place to live,” he explained. “And I like to draw.”
Across the street, the last of the blood was still glistening in the sun.
—Additional reporting by Elisha Brown and Lizeth Beltran