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New York City Police Department officers last week shot dead an unarmed black man suffering from bipolar disorder after mistaking the silver metal pipe he was holding for a gun. The shooting marks the second time in less than a month that law enforcement officers had killed a black man for holding an everyday object.
The police demonstrate huge racial disparities in how it uses forces against civilians: racial minorities (who make up 37% of the general population) constitute 47% of armed and unarmed victims, but a whopping 63% of unarmed people killed by the police, according to a 2015 analysis by The Guardian.
These are some of the black men who have died for holding objects that were not guns.
1. Saheed Vassell
Date: April 4, 2018
New York City Police Department officers responding to two calls about a man pointing an object that resembled a gun at people on the street shot 34-year-old Saheed Vassell 10 times on a street corner in his Brooklyn neighborhood, the New York Times reported. Once the four officers arrived on the scene, police said Vassell assumed a “two-handed shooting stance and pointed an object at the approaching officers, two of whom were in uniform,” according to CNN. Surveillance video clips also showed Vassell simulating pointing a gun at cops. Officers later discovered Vassell was holding a silver metal “pipe with some sort of knob on it.” The NYPD, facing public outrage, released an edited video of Vassell supposedly threatening people with the object — but we cannot see how the passersby react, as the frames freeze on their blurred faces."How you get the full facts of what the person has in their hand, and what their mental health condition might be, and are they known to anyone, in something that's playing out in seconds and minutes, that's a very tall order," said NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio.
Following his death, hundreds took to Brooklyn’s streets to protest, slamming the police for taking the life of their beloved neighbor, who they remembered as harmless and kind. Protesters urged gentrifying newcomers to stop calling law enforcement and instead engage with their neighbors — picking up the phone could mean death. Residents of the area knew that Vassell had a mental illness.
“Stop calling 911. Blood is on your hands,” Hortencia Peterson, the aunt of Akai Gurley, an unarmed black man who was also shot by the NYPD, warned. “They murdered my son and I want justice for him,” demanded Vassell’s mother, Lorna.
2. Stephon Clark
Date: March 18, 2018
Clark was holding a cell phone when two Sacramento Police officers fired 20 shots at him in the backyard of his grandparents’ home, sparking nationwide outrage. The officers had been chasing Clark, 22, after Sacramento Sheriff Department deputies in a helicopter allegedly saw him use a “toolbar” to break a window in a nearby home, the Sacramento Bee reported. The officers followed Clark into the backyard of his grandparent’s home, where he “turned and advanced towards the officers while holding an object which was extended in front of him,” according to police. The two cops fired 20 rounds, striking him eight times, six of those in the back, according to a private autopsy reported by the New York Times. Following his killing, protests spread across the nation, demanding justice for the unarmed father of two. The Sacramento Police Department has not released the names of the officers involved and they have been placed on leave. Investigations by the California Department of Justice, Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office are underway.
3. Rumain Brisbon
Date: Dec. 2, 2014
A Phoenix police officer confused a vial of oxycodone in Brisbon’s pocket for the handle of a gun, shooting him twice in the middle of a tussle between the two. The officer, Mark Rine, had been chasing Brisbon, 34, after receiving a tip that there was a drug deal in the SUV he had been sitting in with a friend, according to USA Today. Rine went to question Brisbon, who then got out of the vehicle. He appeared to take something out of the back, proceeding to run toward nearby apartments as Rine took out his weapon. Brisbon did not heed the officer’s orders to get on the ground, and the two eventually got into a scuffle, police said. During the struggle, the officer thought he felt the handle of a gun inside Brisbon’s pocket. Rine reportedly felt like he was losing control of Brisbon’s hand and shot him twice.
Weeks of protests followed in Phoenix as protesters mourned the death of another unarmed black man. Rine did not face charges for the shooting. Phoenix reached a $1.5 million settlement with Brisbon’s family, the Phoenix New Times reported.
4. Reginald Dewayne Wallace
Date: March 12, 2010
Wallace pulled an iPod out of his pocket, and then a Nashville police officer shot him dead. Three times. Metro Police Canine Officer Joe Shelton had been pursuing Wallace, 34, after receiving a call about a burglary. Once the officer grabbed him, the pair got into a scuffle, during which Wallace reached into his pocket for the shiny silver object that he had allegedly stolen, according to The Times Free Press. It was then that Shelton shot Wallace three times. Wallace died of his wounds two hours later at the hospital, while Shelton did not face any disciplinary action for the shooting and still works for the department, Mother Jones reported.
5. Amadou Diallo
Date: February 4, 1999
Diallo, 23, was reaching for his wallet when New York City Police Department officers fired 41 shots at him as he stood in the vestibule of his Bronx apartment building, according to The Los Angeles Times. The four plain clothes officers had been patrolling the neighborhood in search of a serial rapist when they came upon Diallo, a West African immigrant who matched the “general description” of the man they were looking for, Officer Sean Carroll later testified at his trial. Carroll also acknowledged that he didn’t have a good enough view of Diallo to determine his race. The four officers got out of their cars and demanded that he show his hands. When Diallo instead stepped back into the vestibule and reached for his pocket, the officers opened fire. A wallet and pager were found next to Diallo’s dead body. All four officers were acquitted of charges, including Officer Kenneth Boss. Boss was promoted to sergeant in 2015, according to the New York Daily News.
While investigations into the deaths of Vassell and Clark are underway, it is very rare that a police officer spends time behind bars for killing a black person, as evidenced by the cases preceding theirs. Just one officer out of 15 high-profile cases involving the death of a black person has been sent to prison since 2014, a New York Times analysis found. A combination of a jury’s willingness to believe police officers lives were at risk, and protections by police departments and the courts contribute to the normalcy of these shootings, experts say.
“A police killing like that of Stephon Clark is not a random mistake, but a reflection of much deeper problems in policing in the United States,” constitutional lawyer Erwin Chemerinsky, who conducted a study of corruption within the Los Angeles Police Department, wrote in the Sacramento Bee in March.
And the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Kisela v. Hughes in early April will only reinforce the practice of “shoot first, think later,” Justice Sonia Sotomayer wrote in the case’s lone dissent. The court had ruled an Arizona woman could not sue a police officer who had shot her for having a knife, causing many to worry that this will only encourage a culture in which police officers don’t fire their weapons as a last resort, but pull the trigger as the norm.
[Photo: Projections of "Murdered By The NYPD" and "Justice for Saheed Vassell" are seen on a building during a protest in Brooklyn in April 2018. By Lauren Gill]