Last Wednesday, Saheed Vassell was gunned down in Crown Heights. He was killed by police officers who were responding to calls about a man brandishing a gun. Video from the surrounding businesses show that Mr. Vassell was running up on people and pointing a metal pipe at them, acting as if the metal pipe was a gun. Reports say that when cops arrived, he was pointing this metal pipe like it was a weapon, and so the cops fired ten rounds, hitting him five times and killing him.
Police officers are trained in tactical engagement. They are trained on how to spot a threat, how to assess a dangerous situation, how to take defensive cover and how to remove the threat. They handle guns as part of their career. They shoot them, they carry them, they confiscate them from criminals. Every cop in every city is trained in tactical engagement, and every cop in every city handles guns enough to be able to recognize one when they see it. Yet, far too often, Blacks are killed because police thought they had a gun. They thought Amadou Diallo’s wallet was a gun. They thought Stephon Clark’s cell phone was a gun. They thought that Saheed Vassell’s metal pipe was a gun. And in each case, rather than to rely on tactical engagement, rather than to take defensive cover and assess a potentially dangerous situation, the cops involved simply aimed and fired. Amadou was shot at 41 times. Stephon was shot at 20 times. Saheed was shot at 10 times. How do you fire 10 shots at a man who hasn’t fired one shot back at you? How do you decide to kill a person without being totally sure that what you see in his hands is a gun, and not some metal pipe? Who gave you the authority to rule over life in such a way? They didn’t have to kill him you know. Instead of hopping out their vehicle and firing, they could’ve taken cover behind the vehicle and demanded that he drop the weapon. They could have given him a chance to comply. They could have fired a warning shot. One of them could’ve looked to be certain of what Saheed was carrying. And even if they felt they had to shoot, they could’ve fired one shot at him and waited for his response to being shot once. They didn’t have to all fire in unison. They did not have to kill him. But they did.
Police kill Black men at such a high rate because the value they hold on the life of a Black man is minimal. Media teaches that Black men are shiftless, oversexed and criminalized. Our own music reinforces that opinion, and the racist nature of the white supremacist construct that America was built on profits from the idea of Black male subordinance. The seeds of inequality have been planted in us all. White folk, Asian folk, Hispanic folk, Black folk, we all deal with battling the imagery and messages on race that permeate throughout our lives. When a cop sees a white man in a criminalized situation, he sees someone whose life has value, and he will treat him as such. He’s more likely to ask him to put the weapon down. He’s more likely to realize that the guy is carrying a can of Red Bull and not a gun. When a cop sees a Black man in a criminalized situation, he sees a criminal, someone who is a threat. He doesn’t offer the benefit of the doubt because he doesn’t recognize the value in doing so. If he has something in his hand, it must be a gun. If they have to engage, it will be with deadly force. Tactical engagement holds no value when dealing with Black men because we are already guilty in the court of public opinion.
The issue of cops and how they engage Blacks is a systemic issue. The path to solving the problem is as complex as the problem itself. However, a step in the right direction is to mandate racial sensitivity courses for all police officers. Police have to be educated and forced to be accountable for their views on race. There should be a constant psychological evaluation and profile of police officers so that those officers that exhibit racially polarizing ideals can be taken off of duties that might put them in situations where they might be compelled to draw their weapon. We are talking about life. This is a very serious thing. No one deserves to be killed by police unless the danger they present is of imminent death or destruction. Saheed Vassell certainly did not deserve to die.