The outraged family of the 34-year-old Brooklyn man Saheed Vassell lashed out against the NYPD Thursday morning as they tried to cope with his death.
“It’s a piece of iron and they kill him for a piece of iron,” Vassell’s aunt Nora Ford, 59, said bitterly, describing the object her nephew was holding.
Police mistook the metal rod Vassell was holding for a weapon and opened fire on him at Utica Ave. and Montgomery St. in Crown Heights about 4:40 p.m. Wednesday. The bullets struck him multiple times.
The NYPD released a surveillance image after the shooting showing Vassell gripping it with both hands and pointing it at plainclothes cops arriving at the scene.
Vassell, who is bipolar, died at Kings County Hospital.
The shooting occurred as the nation paused to reflect on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King.
Ford visited the shooting scene Thursday morning.
RELATED: 15 countries with the worst crime in the world
15 countries with the worst crime in the world
15 countries with the worst crime in the world
15. Italy: 3.5
Long associated with the Mafia, Italy has struggled to shake the influence of groups such as Cosa Nostra in Sicily, 'Ndrangheta of Calabria (who are considered to be among the biggest cocaine smugglers in Europe), and Camorra in Naples. North African gangs have recently extended activities in Italy due to the unprecedented refugee crisis that peaked in 2015. The crisis led to a huge black market in people smuggling to Europe. Italy was a key entry point for many groups.
The southern African country of Mozambique borders six other countries and also has a coast on the Indian Ocean, making it a hub for illegal trafficking. The US State Department assessed the crime and safety risk of the country as "critical" in its most recent report on the country and said: "All borders, including the eastern coast and airports, are porous and facilitate trafficking drugs, humans, and illicit wildlife products. While lack of opportunity prevents most illegal traffickers from settling in Mozambique, the constant flux of people and goods brings with it nefarious elements and businesses."
12. Guinea: 3.4
One of the poorest countries in the world and prone to political instability, the West African country of Guinea-Bissau is a playground for drug traffickers. "Cocaine-related corruption has clearly undermined governance in places like Guinea-Bissau," a 2013 UN report said, which noted that the country's "annual economic output is less than the value of some of the cocaine seizures made in the region."
Guinea has a sea border and cocaine is shipped to the country from South America. From there, it is smuggled into Europe. The UN report says that methamphetamines are also smuggled to East Asia via the region. The Guardian noted last year that drug smuggling has declined since its peak in the mid-2000s but the illegal trade in Guinea remains stubborn.
10. Pakistan: 3.3
Organised crime is closely linked to terrorism and terrorist groups in Pakistan, with an established link between the Taliban and drug trafficking in the country. Reporting from Karachi in 2009, the New York Times wrote: "The police here say the Taliban, working with criminal groups, are using Mafia-style networks to kidnap, rob banks and extort, generating millions of dollars for the militant insurgency in northwestern Pakistan."
Most of the heroin produced in Afghanistan, the world's largest producer, is exported through Pakistan, which has a sea border, unlike its neighbour.
10. Yemen: 3.3
Yemen is one of the poorest countries in the Arab region and is locked in a civil war that has involved powerful neighbour Saudi Arabia since 2015. This mixture of poverty and instability makes the country ripe for corruption and smuggling.
Peru is the world's second-biggest cocaine producer and, as a result, has a vibrant network of narco gangs and drug traffickers. Illegal logging and the trade in timber is also a problem in the country. However, unlike other countries on the list, levels of violence related to organized crime in Peru are relatively low.
Ellis said that the industry is largely controlled by "seemingly nameless "family clans," collaborating and occasionally competing in a complex criminal economy."
8. Chad: 3.1
As with many other countries on the list, terrorism is linked to organized crime in Chad. Islamist group Boko Haram is active in the country and are active smugglers.
"The country’s long, porous borders leave it vulnerable to the smuggling of goods and people across the Sahel," according to the US State Department. "Along Chad’s southern and western borders, including Lake Chad, the contraband goods market consists largely of foodstuffs, cigarettes, oil, gold, and other household items smuggled into the country to avoid import duties.
"Across Chad’s northern desert and along the Sudan/Chad border in the east, smuggled items include drugs and weapons. Drugs, mainly cannabis and cocaine, are transported via Chad and Sudan to the Arabian Peninsula."
6. Colombia: 2.9
Colombia has a long history of organized crime, chronicled in the Netflix series Narcos that traced the history of drug lord Pablo Escobar. Colombia remains the world's number one cocaine producer, despite the death of Escobar in 1993 following year's of operations against him by the US Drug Enforcement Administration.
Christopher “Dudus” Coke, the leader of Kingston's Shower Posse gang, was dubbed "one of the world's most dangerous drug traffickers" by the US before his extradition to America to face drug trafficking charges in 2011. Gang problems persist in Jamaica and it "remains the Caribbean’s largest source of marijuana for the United States as well as a transit point for cocaine trafficked from South America," according to the state department.
5. Guatemala: 2.7
Guatemala has the tenth highest murder rate in the world, according to the UN, largely due to its gang problem. The country's two main gangs are the Mara Salvatrucha and 18th Street gang. Both established strong footholds in the country after the end of its civil war in 1996 and both make their money through extortion of local businesses and drug trafficking.
The International Crisis Group says: "Estimated to number 54,000 in the three Northern Triangle countries – El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras – the gangs’ archetypal tattooed young men stand out among the region’s greatest sources of public anxiety."
4. Mexico: 2.6
Mexico is the main gateway for illegal drugs being smuggled into the United States and this trade has sparked bloody wars between narco gangs in the country. A US congressional report from April states: "The DEA stated that Mexican drug trafficking groups are working to expand their presence, particularly in the heroin markets inside the United States. Over the years, Mexico’s criminal groups have trafficked heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine, marijuana, and increasingly the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl."
Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, the boss of the notorious Sinola cartel, Mexico's most powerful narco gang, was extradited to the US in January. Law enforcement organizations hope this will help Mexican authorities tackle problems in the country.
3. Venezuela: 2.5
A history of poverty has led to the rise of gangs and organised crime in Venezuela. Caracas is the deadliest city in the world, with an estimated 130.35 homicides per 100,000 residents, and much of that is down to gang-related violence.
Venezuela has recently been gripped by protests against President Nicolás Maduro and some commentators fear that the instability could give organized crime a further foothold in the country. Oxford academic Annette Idler wrote in the Washington Post earlier this year: "Venezuela’s crumbling political order could have a spillover effect on regional stability and Colombia’s fragile peace — as well as encourage the global expansion of transnational organized criminal and terrorist networks."
2. Honduras: 2.4
As with Guatemala, Honduras' position in central America makes it a key corridor for trafficking drugs produced in South America into the United States. This has led to powerful gangs operating in the country.
"In Guatemala and Honduras... there is a clear link between contested trafficking areas and the murder rates," the UN wrote in a recent report. "Some of the most violent areas in the world lie along the Honduran coast and on both sides of the Guatemalan/Honduran border."
While most of the gang-related activity in Honduras is related to drug trafficking, the UN notes that "the groups involved have long engaged in a range of criminal activities, from extortion to migrant smuggling. Though their role in crime and corruption was less visible before the recent boom in cocaine trafficking, they have long been a drain on the nations of Central America."
1. El Salvador: 1.5
The central American country of El Salvador has the highest murder rate in the world, according to the UN, down to its deep-rooted gang problem. As with Honduras and Guatemala, a history of poverty and civil war, combined with its location between South and North America, has made El Salvador a hot spot for organized criminal gangs trafficking drugs.
“I just want to touch the blood where he died,” she said. “I bet if he was a white kid, they wouldn't fire a shot at him like that."
Residents described Vassell as a harmless neighborhood nut they would often find talking to himself on the street where he was killed.
Despite his difficulties, he always found time to help his family, Ford said.
“He came by my house to help me with my computer,” she said. “I said to him, ‘I don't know how to use a computer.’ He said, 'Auntie, I got you.'”
“He’s just loving. He was very well-loved,” she added.
A high-ranking police source said that surveillance video taken from the area shows that Vassell was acting as if the hunk of metal he was holding was a gun.
"It was tragic what happened, but it was a good shooting," the source said. "This guy had some mental issues and there was alcohol involved. Based on what he was doing and what he had in his hands, it's no doubt its going to be justified.”
Police said they were responding to three 911 calls about Vassell after he started pointing the object at pedestrians.
NYPD Chief of Department Terence Monahan said that, after being confronted by cops, he “took a two-handed shooting stance and pointed an object at the approaching officers.”
Three of the four arriving officers shot at Vassell, firing off 10 rounds.
Eyewitness Jesus Santiago, 55, said he saw Vassell arguing and aiming the rod at residents before the shooting but thought nothing of it, saying it was typical and harmless behavior.
"We know him around here," he said. "He's a little bit crazy but he don't bother us."
Santiago estimated 20 to 30 seconds elapsed from the time police arrived till shots were fired.
"Everything happened so fast," he said. "The officers arrived and somebody said, 'He's got a gun.' Nobody said nothing to him. They just started shooting."
Santiago said police were just a few feet from Vassell when they opened fire.
"You could see from a distance that it wasn't a gun," he said. "Why the hell did you have to shoot him ten times?"
Neighborhood resident Bob Dylan, 29, said that Vassell always had the metal rod — which Dylan believes is a showerhead — with him.
“He never had it out, he just kept it on his waist,” Dylan said.