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.
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“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.