He strode up and down a busy Brooklyn street on Wednesday, lunging at passers-by — someone pushing a cart, someone holding a young child’s hand — with a curved silver pipe resting on his fingers like the barrel of a gun.
Neighbors and police officers knew the man, Saheed Vassell, as the broom handler for a local barbershop, an idiosyncratic fixture on the block who was mentally ill and liked to drink outside. Patrol officers chatted with him and sometimes bought him Jamaican food. They had taken him to the hospital to be treated for mental illness a number of times in recent years.
But the plainclothes anti-crime officers who answered a smartphone alert for someone waving a silver gun on Wednesday didn’t know him at all, the police said. Given nothing more than what 911 callers told a dispatcher — that a black man with a brown jacket and bluejeans was pointing at people with something that looked like a gun — they screeched to a stop at the corner where Mr. Vassell spent most days and, after he crouched and aimed the pipe at them, almost instantly shot and killed him.
Police officials argued it hardly mattered which officers answered the call or what training they had. Any officers facing what appeared to be a gun aimed at them would have little choice but to fire, these officials said. Security camera videos from nearby businesses showed Mr. Vassell, 34, just moments before his death, startling people on the street and jabbing the pipe into one man’s chest.
But the killing may reveal a more pervasive problem: the shortcomings of a neighborhood policing program that Mayor Bill de Blasio has pitched as a cure for excessive police force, but which often plays no role in the hurried encounters that determine whether someone lives or dies.
Community policing officers focus on meeting residents and getting to know their concerns. But they are very often not the ones rushing to reports of armed people or stickups in progress. The officers who answer those fast-moving calls — many of them part of specialty units, like the anti-crime officers who responded Wednesday — have little more to go on than a dispatcher’s relay of a 911 call and what they see in front of them, telescoped into split seconds.
Too often, skeptics of the mayor’s plan say, that means someone who looks dangerous but actually needs help is met with an onrush of officers who know nothing about him. Police officials have not definitively answered questions about whether the responding officers said anything before opening fire. Several witnesses said they did not.
“He didn’t need to be gunned down,” said Jay Locke, 48, a co-owner of a health foods store near the shooting. “The police know he has a mental disability.”
The shooting set off demonstrations that converged on Thursday at the corner where Mr. Vassell was shot, with protesters observing a moment of silence before they broke out into cries for justice and one woman shouted, “Stop killing our sons!” Many people said the police had been too quick to fire and should have been aware of Mr. Vassell’s mental illness.
“Saheed came from a good family and they have no right to shoot him down the way how they did it, because Saheed is no gunman,” Mr. Vassell’s mother, Lorna Vassell, shouted at the protest, before repeatedly calling, “Justice for Saheed!”
The police on Thursday released a video showing excerpts from security camera footage of Mr. Vassell raising the pipe, as well as partial transcripts of 911 calls. Protesters took the video’s release as an attempt to head off criticism of the shooting as unjustified and racially motivated.
Mr. Vassell was black. The police did not name the four officers who fired or give their races, but a plainclothes officer seen in a cellphone video giving Mr. Vassell medical care after firing at him appeared to be white.
On Thursday morning, the state attorney general’s office announced it was opening an investigation into the shooting, under a 2015 executive order allowing the office to act as a special prosecutor in probing the deaths of unarmed civilians at the hands of the police.
Police officers dealt with Mr. Vassell many times over the years, giving him 120 summonses and classifying him as emotionally disturbed after several calls during which they took him to a hospital.
Unlike beat officers, who under Mr. de Blasio’s community policing initiative are given time to mix with residents and learn their problems, the plainclothes officers who responded on Wednesday worked mostly on more urgent calls where familiarity with the locals was not a concern.
“It really is this hole in the neighborhood policing model,” said Jeffrey Fagan, a professor and criminologist at Columbia Law School. “I can’t imagine a patrol cop doing this who walked those streets or drove those streets. The point is for them to actually have that kind of intimate knowledge.”
Mr. de Blasio conceded on Thursday that his community policing plan had limits. “Neighborhood policing absolutely means our officers have a much greater knowledge of the community,” he said. “That doesn’t mean they know everyone in the community. That doesn’t mean that officer is, right then, available that moment as an immediate emergency is playing out.”
Neighborhood residents said the police officers who had dealt with Mr. Vassell before would have known he was not a serious threat.
Mr. Vassell sank into mental illness and started drinking after a best friend was murdered in front of him around 15 years ago, neighbors said. One friend, Henry E. Christian, said that when Mr. Vassell was drinking he would sometimes act out the killing.
He tried to get help, but haltingly, inquiring just last month about health insurance options for people with bipolar disorder outside a UnitedHealthcare office. But while he had taken medication for bipolar disorder in the past, he was not taking any currently, his father, Eric Vassell, said. The mayor said he did not know if the city had connected Mr. Vassell with mental health services.
He hoarded artifacts he found on the street and stashed them on the roof of his apartment building: locks, segments of pipe, a boiler casting, fingernail clippers, a razor blade, a bicycle chain and a shoe. Among his possessions there were also soiled latex gloves from his mother’s medical job and an envelope addressed to his father.
Carlos Simone, 59, a friend, said he had seen Mr. Vassell point things at people and play like they were guns. But his father said Mr. Vassell never touched real guns, and friends said he could be talked down when he was excited.
“He had a mental issue that was challenging,” said Kirk McLeod, 34, who knew Mr. Vassell for six years. “And sometimes it’s just a simple conversation with someone can deter them from doing something stupid. If I saw this in his hand, I would have taken that from him.”
Dian Burgess, 34, an employee at Diamond Krust, a Jamaican restaurant where Mr. Vassell picked up food for workers at nearby barbershops and hair salons, said one officer was particularly close to Mr. Vassell.
“Most of the police I saw liked him and had a one-on-one rapport with him,” Mr. Burgess said.
Mr. Vassell was known as quirky and occasionally erratic, but never violent, friends said. Almost every morning he visited St. Matthew Roman Catholic Church near Utica Avenue and Eastern Parkway, showing up before 7:30 a.m. Mass. He would walk in, cross himself and then pace the aisles of the church, bobbing his head without ever stopping to sit in the pews.
“He would circle the whole church, ” Flora Nuñez, a parishioner, 61, said.
Parishioners said he was attracted to the three Virgin Mary statues in the north transept of the church. He would clasp his hands before them and give them a kiss.
Why he started pretending to point a gun at people on Wednesday was not clear. The first 911 calls came in at 4:40 p.m.: One caller reported that others had said he had a gun, while another told the dispatcher, “He’s like popping it as if, like, if he’s pulling the trigger.” The three plainclothes officers were not assigned to the incident, but saw an alert about it in their car and decided to respond. They asked a dispatcher for more details and reached the scene by 4:42 p.m., the police said.
Because the officers were sent to an intersection rather than a street address, they lacked information about previous calls regarding a person with mental illness.
Uniformed officers from the Strategic Response Group, which handles major events and hot spots of crime, happened to be in the area and responded to the scene, too.
When they arrived at the corner of Montgomery Street and Utica Avenue, the officers saw Mr. Vassell assume a shooting stance, the police said. Four of them — three plainclothes officers and one uniformed officer — rapidly fired a total of 10 shots. Witnesses said they did not hear the officers say anything.
The shooting left residents deeply distrustful of the notion that neighborhood policing would protect them from fatal police shootings. Charles Hampton, 55, said he thought it was nothing more than a public relations ploy by the city to prevent civil unrest.
“That’s just to keep your mind settled, to stop the riots,” he said.
Mr. Vassell’s death left a void at Kev’s Unique Barber Shop, where he often swept for a few dollars, and on his Crown Heights corner. At the barbershop on Thursday, a friend, Hector Robinson, said, “If he hadn’t died, he would be here today sweeping.”
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