How I Learned Not to Call 911

During the time my mother, Marguerite, had most of her manic episodes, we lived in a one-bedroom apartment in the West Farms section of the Bronx that was protected mostly by a police lock. It was an old-school twentieth-century New York situation, with a floor-mounted steel bar affixed to a dead bolt so no one could bust down the door.

This lock made me feel safer than the thought of calling the actual police ever did, even when I worried my mother might kill me or herself. The lock kept all our troubles inside instead of letting the world rush in.

In Black and brown neighborhoods, we hesitate to call 911 because we know it can end in death. The death last Wednesday in Crown Heights of Saheed Vassell, who was fatally shot multiple times by police officers for brandishing what turned out to be a metal pipe, is the latest reminder.

Reading that Vassell was bipolar and Black, I was transported back to that apartment with my mother, where even as a frightened teenager I understood how important it was to protect my mother’s life as well as mine.

Like Vassell, Marguerite had a mental illness that made her hoard things. Like Vassell, she liked to regularly attend morning mass — a devout Catholic, she was a regular at the 7:30 a.m. mass at St. Nicholas of Tolentine Church and, when she had at least one token, at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

We learned in that little five-story subsidized housing building in the Bronx with the thin walls that it wasn’t so easy to keep your business to yourself. Mom’s manic episodes could be set off by anything, and could last for minutes or hours as she screamed and paced. Her yelling was unhinged, and so were her punches.

I was the only kid in our family still living with Mom in the Bronx; my siblings had gone to live with other relatives back when she lost what was left of her mind, after my brother Jose was hit and killed by a Philadelphia bus when he was twelve years old. My grandmother has said that no one in our family took me from my mother because I was just a baby at the time, and all she had left.

As long as it was just the two of us, I reasoned as a girl, I could take the abuse. It seemed better than whatever the police would do to her or to us. When I was five years old, the neighbors called the authorities after Mom burned me with a straightening comb. I was put in foster care and didn’t see her for a year. I feared the next time would be for longer, if not forever.

It was never a question in my mind that I would be loyal to my mother instead of seeking help for myself from the authorities or police. This was true even when she found objects to beat me with, when she wrapped her hands around my throat and threatened to kill me and it felt like she might actually mean it.

[related_posts post_id_1=”583807″ /]

One night when I was thirteen, it got so bad that the neighbors, who generally resisted calling the police for all the reasons I’ve said above, did call them. Sometimes it’s difficult to do nothing.

The presence of officers inside our building was enough to alert her that she needed to breathe deeply. That she needed to lower her voice. That other people were listening and watching. Thankfully, things did not escalate. We closed the door, clicked the police lock back into place, and went to bed.

All over the city, New Yorkers express discomfort about calling the police, particularly when people of color might be in danger. Shakthi Jothianandan, a journalist who lives near a mental health rehab clinic and halfway house in Manhattan’s Kips Bay, says that even when she hears yelling at all hours of the day and night and her fight-or-flight response is engaged, she’s apprehensive about calling 911.

“It seems that most people know not to call the police about someone being ‘a danger’ or ‘suspicious’ because we understand the many populations who live here,” Jothianandan says.

Native Brooklynite Jennifer Pozner, a journalist, book author, and frequent Voice contributor, says that she first wrestled with this dilemma more than a decade ago, when in pre-gentrification Kensington she saw a huge fight involving students of color but hesitated to call the police. “I wanted to help the kid who was being hurt, but I also knew that the best-case scenario of calling 911 would be that each of those kids would probably get a record — likely including the kid who was being beaten up,” she says. “And that’s the best case; at the worst, I worried that cops could beat up or shoot the kids.”

Vassell’s death shows how quickly things can go wrong after a 911 call, and not just because of the NYPD’s long history of problems dealing with the mentally ill, which have persisted even after the introduction of new crisis intervention training. The officers who shot Vassell appear not to have been his local police, but rather other strategic response and “anti-crime” units typically assigned to shootings. They would not have known him, and would not have known that he sometimes took medication.

[related_posts post_id_1=”583885″ /]

I have been reminded these last few days of Charleena Lyles, the mentally ill Black woman fatally shot multiple times by police officers last year in Seattle. Yes, she was brandishing a knife. But the police had been to her apartment before. And Lyles was pregnant. They killed her in front of her babies.

Every day, New Yorkers encounter so many mentally ill people, whether on the street or in their own buildings. The most recent data for New York shows that some 95,000 New Yorkers with serious mental illnesses, including bipolar disorder, have not received mental health treatment in the past year. There are fewer mental health beds than ever. Very few of the people who need mental health treatment the most can either afford medication or manage to adhere to it.

It was ultimately stage IV cervical cancer that killed my mother six years ago, but the deaths of Saheed Vassell and Charleena Lyles suggest that she could easily have shared their fate.

One time, distraught, confused, hot tears streaming down my face, I ran out of our apartment building down cracked marble steps into the Bronx summer air just to feel the breeze on my face, to remember how big the world was, how small my problems were, how small I was.

My bipolar mother came running after me in the dark, shouting, because it was late and she was worried. Reading about Vassell’s life and death, I wonder what a different life I would have had — and my mother would have had — if someone had called the police, mistaking our need for air, our way of trying to maneuver around despair, for something more sinister, less human.


New Video Shows Chaos After Saheed Vassell Shooting

A video obtained by the Village Voice shows the chaotic aftermath in Crown Heights after four police officers shot and killed 34-year-old Saheed Vassell on Wednesday. In the video, a response team tends to a fallen Vassell while police officers are frantically trying to clear the scene of various shocked onlookers and passing cars.

Police say they were responding to three 911 calls about a man who appeared to be carrying a weapon, possibly a gun, near the intersection of Montgomery Street and Utica Avenue. When police arrived at the scene, they encountered Vassell, who was in a “two-handed shooting stance,” while holding a silver object in his hands. Police officers then fired 10 shots at Vassell, who was pronounced dead shortly after being taken to Kings County Hospital. Police say the object turned out to be a pipe from a welding torch.

[related_posts post_id_1=”583807″ /]

Area residents have accused the police of using excessive force against a man who was known to be bipolar. On Thursday, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said the state’s Special Investigations and Prosecution Unit was investigating the incident.

Area residents held a march and rally on Thursday night in memory of Vessell.



Scenes From the Rally for Saheed Vassell


March and Vigil Recalls Saheed Vassell as Caring Neighbor

On Thursday evening, one day after NYPD officers shot and killed Saheed Vassell on a busy Crown Heights thoroughfare, hundreds of New Yorkers gathered to mourn the loss of a familiar neighborhood figure, and to protest what some said is a pattern of police violence carried out against the city’s most vulnerable residents.

The demonstration began with a sorrowful vigil at the corner of Montgomery Street and Utica Avenue, where Vassell, 34, was shot and killed by four NYPD officers on Wednesday afternoon. According to authorities, the cops were responding to three 911 calls about a man brandishing a silver object, which some callers believed to be a firearm, and pointing it at passersby. When police arrived at the scene, Vassell was allegedly holding the object in a “two-handed shooting stance,” prompting the officers to fire ten shots at him. That object was later revealed to be the metal pipe from a welding torch.

At Thursday’s rally — and during the march that followed, which shut down Empire Boulevard for blocks — family members, neighbors, and former classmates remembered Vassell as a warmhearted and generous fixture of Crown Heights. He suffered from bipolar disorder, according to his father, and according to the New York Times had been categorized by police in previous encounters as “emotionally disturbed.” But local residents say that he was known for his contributions to the community, not as a danger to it.

“He helped every old lady on this block. If you needed him to clean anything, he’d clean it,” Luis Irizarry, a martial arts instructor who went to middle school with Vassell, told the Voice. On most days, Vassell could be found hanging out on the corner where he was killed, though he also picked up odd jobs, like sweeping hair at the nearby Kev’s Barber Shop. “He was so loving and caring and always asked about my family,” recalled Irizarry.

“He was my lifelong neighbor who’d offer to walk me home if I was coming home late,” echoed Maya Paul, who lives next to the house that Vassell shared with his son, brother, and parents.

In the view of many local residents, Vassell’s long-established ties to the neighborhood make the circumstances of his death even tougher to accept. “The reason we’re here is because we all know who he was,” said eighteen-year-old Amandre Taylor. “If the cops actually stayed in the neighborhood, it’d be more personal and they wouldn’t have shot him…but it’s these random police coming into the neighborhood ready to shoot.”

While Mayor Bill de Blasio has repeatedly touted neighborhood policing as a core philosophy of his administration, those in attendance on Thursday say the reality of those reforms falls far short of what has been promised. Pointing to scores of Community Affairs officers huddled at the edge of the rally, Crown Heights resident Jay Davis told the Voice, “We never see these guys, never. I don’t know why they have that commercial on TV [where] police are out there talking to people. The police aren’t out here talking to no one.”

As of Friday morning, the NYPD had not released the names of the involved officers, three of whom were plainclothes. No footage of the shooting has been released, and none of the officers were wearing body cameras, NYPD Chief of Department Terrence Monahan said. Though the mayor initially promised that the 911 recordings would be made public, his office later backtracked, saying that it would only share partial transcripts. On Thursday afternoon, hours after New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced an investigation into the killing, the NYPD released a video with some of the promised evidence. That video features excerpts of 911 calls — “he looks like he’s crazy but he’s pointing something at people that looks like a gun” — and some surveillance footage showing Vassell pointing the metal object at pedestrians.

Many at the rally decried this apparent lack of transparency, calling on the city to release the names of the officers and the full 911 recordings. Hortencia Peterson, aunt of Akai Gurley, an unarmed black man killed by an NYPD officer in 2014, also implicated gentrifiers for their role in police violence. “You are visitors in our communities,” she told the crowd. “Stop calling 911. Blood is on your hands.”

Implicit bias training, another of the mayor’s signature policing reforms, also came under scrutiny, with several residents speculating that Vassell would still be alive right now if he were white. Marlon Peterson, a lifelong Crown Heights resident, drew comparisons to recent killings of other unarmed black men, including Stephon Clark, who was fatally shot by police in Sacramento, California, a few weeks ago while holding a white iPhone. “This is what [police] tell us — whether it be a wallet, skittles, a pipe, a cellphone — ‘we made another mistake.’ ”

“How we look is the weapon,” Peterson added.

Others, meanwhile, saw parallels in the killing of Deborah Danner, a 66-year-old bipolar woman who was killed by an NYPD sergeant in her Bronx apartment in 2016 for wielding a baseball bat and acting in an “irrational manner.” That sergeant was acquitted earlier this year, and has since returned to work. “It’s heartbreaking that people who need love and care and attention aren’t getting it, and their lives are ending,” noted Claire Draper, 24, whose sign read: “I have bipolar disorder. But they would not have shot me. Because I’m white.”

At around 8 p.m., the marchers arrived outside the 71st Precinct, where they chanted the victim’s name, as dozens of police officers lined barriers set up to keep the protesters at bay. The crowd began to disperse about an hour later, with many of the demonstrators heading home, while others returned to the memorial outside Kev’s, and the stretch of Utica Avenue that Vassell had enlivened for so many years. At least one protester was arrested across the street from where Vassell was shot; NYPD officials could not immediately confirm the charge.

A few hours earlier, Vassell’s family had released dozens of white balloons from the spot where he died. Marcus Vassell said he last spoke with his older brother fifteen minutes before he was killed. The older Vassell had asked to borrow a pair of socks.

“At the end of the night, I used to tell him I loved him, bro,” Marcus recalled. “He just wanted to do him and live life. I never saw him hurt nobody.”

Marcus added that he hadn’t been inspired to actively participate in the Black Lives Matter movement until yesterday. “For Saheed, something must give,” he said. “Something must give.”