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Crown Heights Community Protests Deadly Police-Involved Shooting

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) -- The NYPD released a series of surveillance videos Thursday in the deadly police-involved shooting of a man in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.

Police said one video shows the moment that Saheed Vassell, 34, took a shooting stance and pointed what appeared to be a gun at officers shortly before 5 p.m. Wednesday. Four officers fired 10 shots, killing him.

"Officers responding only understood, for the best of our knowledge so far, they were dealing with a situation of someone armed who had been aiming that weapon," Mayor Bill de Blasio said Thursday.

The object turned out to be a metal pipe. But to several witnesses who called 911 before the deadly shooting, it looked like a gun.

Crown Heights Incident
Surveillance video shows Saheed Vassell, reported to police as wielding a gun in Crown Heights on April 4, 2018. The gun was later identified to be a piece of a welding torch. (credit: CBS2)

The NYPD posted the videos Thursday on Twitter, showing what appears to be Vassell threatening people with the object, including an adult walking with a small child.

"If that's what officers are responding to in real time, we've got to recognize if they believe they are in immediate matter of life-and-death to the people in the surrounding area, that's an exceedingly difficult, tense split-second decision that has to be made," the mayor said.

Police radio transmissions from before the shooting indicated bystanders were fearful, CBS2's Janelle Burrell reported.

"One caller said it appears he's trying to fire that gun at people on the street," NYPD Chief of Department Terence Monahan said.

When police responded at Montgomery Street and Utica Avenue, they said Vassell then pointed the object at the officers.

"The suspect took a two-handed shooting stance and pointed an object at the approaching officers, two of whom were in uniform," Monahan said.

Police said the responding officers were from a strategic response group and an anti-crime unit, not from the local 71st Precinct and not familiar with Vassell, who was a popular fixture in the community.

"They didn't say 'freeze, hands up, drop your gun', none of that," witness Jaccpot Hinds said. "They didn't say nothing. All they did was start shooting."

Vassell was rushed to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead. The medical examiner said seven to nine bullets pierced his body in the head, chest and limbs.

Dozens of police cars converged on the area and a crowd of about 200 people gathered around the cordoned-off intersection, said resident Shaya Tenenbaum, who added that a few people in the crowd shouted at police.

Thursday night Vasell's mother, Lorna, made her voice heard at a rally held on the same corner where he son was gunned down.

"They murdered my son, and I want justice for him," she said. "Everyone that knows Saheed loved Saheed, and Saheed is a very good young man."

Crown Heights Police-Involved Shooting
(credit: NYPD)

Following the rally, a crowd of several hundred marched from the intersection to the 71st Precinct, shutting down both lanes of traffic on Empire Boulevard.

Community leaders called for action and demanded answers from the NYPD.

"If we don't turn around and do something now, like the time is now, the energy is now," one demonstrator said.

Earlier Thursday afternoon, the family and community members gathered for a vigil at the shooting scene.

"I'm here to remind the NYPD there is nothing more valuable to us than the lives of our children, and we will not allow them to be slain in the street like animals," Kristen John Foy, of the National Action Network, said.

Vassell's parents said their son was bipolar and nonviolent. They are questioning the use of force.

"To just come and shoot someone who has something that look like a gun, that's not how police should be trained," his father, Eric Vassell, said.

"If the police saw something in his hand, tell him, 'drop it -- hold your hand up,'" his mother, Lorna Vassell, said. "They did not."

The Attorney General's Office said in a statement Thursday that its Special Investigations and Prosecutions Unit "has opened an investigation into the death of Saheed Vassell."

"We're committed to conducting an independent, comprehensive, and fair investigation," the statement said. The office has the power to investigate police-involved deaths of unarmed people.

Vassell was seen in a video a day before his death at an area barbershop. Family and neighbors said he was harmless.

"He's mentally ill but don't mess with anybody," resident O'Neil Headley said. "It's very sad because it's a dude from around here and a lot of people love him and he don't mess with anybody."

"People know him as the neighborhood guy, just walking around, saying 'Hi -- I want to go to church with you, can I sweep, can I clean up for you," one neighbor said. "That's the kind of guy he was."

Vassell's parents said they are not angry and are focusing on remembering their son, who shared their apartment nearby.

"To be frank with you, I'm not angry. I'm just hurt," Eric Vassell said. "He was very, very kind."

"The police have already killed him," Lorna Vassell said. "There's nothing we can do."

But others in their family and the community are outraged.

"If he was a white kid, he would not have died," his aunt, Nora Ford said. "Oh my God -- I'm so angry."

Police said none of the 911 calls they received reported that Vassell may have been emotionally disturbed, only that people were concerned he was carrying a gun.

"This was not an EDP call, not an emotionally disturbed call," said Monahan. "This was a call of a man pointing what 911 callers and people felt was a gun at people on the street."

Later Thursday night, police arrested a man on the corner where Vassell was killed for allegedly throwing eggs at passing MTA buses in protest. The intersection remains a place of tension between the community and NYPD, CBS2's Valerie Castro reported.

(© Copyright 2018 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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