Police in Brooklyn, New York, last week killed a mentally-ill man named Saheed Vassell. The story won't shock you. A variation of it happens all the time in America. Somebody calls 911, says that a black man may or may not have a gun. The cops arrive. And 10 seconds later the man is dead.
That's what happened in Brooklyn. Saheed Vassell was mentally ill. That fact was known by practically everybody in the neighborhood, including the neighborhood beat cops. Vassell was a broom handler at a local barbershop. He liked to drink outside. The local beat cops routinely stopped to talk to him. They occasionally bought him Jamaican food and once took him to the hospital when he went off his anti-psychotic medications.
Last Wednesday, somebody called 911 and said that a man in a brown jacket was pointing "what was described as a silver firearm" at people on the street. One caller said, "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 a trigger." Indeed, surveillance video showed Vassell aggressively going from person to person on the street, pointing what was clearly not a firearm at them. None of his "victims" called the police.
Three plainclothes and two uniformed officers arrived on the scene. They said that Vassell "took a two-handed shooting stance and pointed an object at the officers." Six seconds later, he was dead. The cops had fired 10 shots. Vassell wasn't holding a gun, of course. He was holding what has alternately been described as a pipe, a piece of a welding tool, and a showerhead.
This scene repeats itself all over America, every few days. Vassell's death came only a week or so after police in Sacramento, California, shot and killed Stephon Clark in his grandmother's backyard. The police said that Clark, too, was holding a gun. He wasn't. Two cops had answered a call that somebody was breaking windows in the neighborhood. Clark was walking to his grandmother's house at the same time. A police helicopter saw him and notified the cops on the ground. Clark, fearing for his safety, ran from the front yard to the back. When he was cornered there, one of the cops shouted "Gun! Gun! Gun!" Both opened fire, hitting Clark eight times. Six bullets hit him in the back.
The forensic evidence contradicts the police version of events. The cops said initially that when they arrived at the front yard and commanded Clark to show his hands, he fled to the backyard. They pursued him. At that point, "the man turned and advanced toward the officers while holding an object extended in front of him. The officers believed the suspect was pointing a firearm at them. Fearing for their safety, the officers fired their duty weapons, striking the suspect multiple times."
But that story wasn't true. What the Sacramento Police didn't say in their original statement to the press was that Clark had a white iPhone in his hands. When additional cops arrived on the scene, one is heard on a body camera asking, "What did he have on him?" Another responded, "Like this, something in his hands. It looked like a gun from our perspective." Minutes later, another voice is heard to say, "Hey, mute that." The audio on the body camera then cuts off.
I can tell you that when I went through weapons training at the CIA, not all of that class had to do with what guns to use, how to use them, and how to clean them. Some of the class had to do with what to do when you actually shot someone. We were told first never to draw the weapon unless we intended to kill someone. We were to never draw the weapon to frighten someone, to fire a warning shot, or to intimidate. The weapon was meant solely to kill someone. I remember one instructor saying, "You wouldn't believe the paperwork involved when you draw a weapon. So if you draw it, make sure it's worth drawing."
The second part of that lesson was something that I'm sure cops around the country are taught every day. My instructor said, "Remember, if you have to kill somebody in the line of duty, it's because you feared for your safety. Always say you feared for your safety." I thought that was something of a bad joke at the time. But we see it play out all across the country all the time.
Just look at the statement from the Sacramento Police Department: "The officers believed the suspect was pointing a firearm at them. Fearing for their safety, the officers fired their duty weapons, striking the suspect multiple times." This statement could be copied and pasted into every police report in America that involves a fatal shooting.
I don't have the space here to debate the pros and cons of police policy. It is the place, though, to say that the police kill far, far more people of color than they do whites. They are far quicker to resort to violence without even understanding the basics of what is happening; indeed, they usually fire at a suspect within seconds of their arrival on scene.
But when the police kill 10.1 Native Americans per million residents and 6.7 African-Americans per million residents versus only 2.9 per million residents, you have a problem. Are the cops racists? Are they afraid? Are they poorly trained? Are they unqualified? The answer may be yes to all of these questions. So long as the system -- police departments, local and state governments, and courts -- cover for them, though, we'll never know the answers. In the meantime, innocent people of color will continue to die at the hands of the police. And nobody is doing anything about it.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I believe that our only alternative is to take to the streets. In the past few years, I've become personally acquainted with leaders and participants in the Black Lives Matter movement, the ANSWER Coalition, Code Pink, and other organizations. I'm going to follow their lead. We accomplish nothing by sitting quietly and hoping that the politicians do something. We have to force them to.
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