The father of police brutality victim Saheed Vassell is demanding a public apology and the retraction of an advertisement by Republican gubernatorial candidate Lee Zeldin, where footage of Vassell is used amid a collage of apocalyptic crime imagery and narration.
The Zeldin campaign used security footage of Vassell, a 34-year-old Black man who was killed by NYPD officers in Crown Heights in April 2018, in an ad this month highlighting footage of criminal activity and laying blame at the hands of Democratic governor Kathy Hochul. The footage of Vassell, where he is seen pointing a metal pipe shaped like a gun at pedestrians, plays over the ominous narration “On November 8, vote like your life depends on it. It just might.”
But contrary to the ad’s implications, Vassell was not committing a crime in said footage, his father Eric notes. In fact, the footage is from just moments before Vassell was fatally shot in a barrage of bullets by four NYPD officers, an incident that outraged members of his community, especially those that knew him.
“Seeing my son, Saheed Vassell’s, image in that terrible ad breaks my heart. It is painful and enraging that Mr. Zeldin is playing politics with my son’s image — criminalizing and dehumanizing Saheed, who was murdered by the NYPD,” said Eric Vassell in a Sept. 27 statement. “We demand that the ad be taken down immediately and that Mr. Zeldin issue a public apology for his disrespectful and misleading use of Saheed’s image for his personal political gain.”
Vassell suffered from mental illness but was well known both by community members and local police officers as a neighborhood gadfly. On the afternoon of April 4, 2018, he was captured on CCTV pointing a metal pipe shaped like a gun at various passersby in the vicinity of Utica Avenue and Montgomery Street, an activity for which police fielded multiple 911 calls.
Officers fired their weapons at Vassell within seconds of arriving on the scene, after he allegedly pointed the metal object at them, police claimed. None of the officers involved ever faced any formal repercussions from the NYPD for the incident, according to 50-a.org, a database of publicly available departmental disciplinary records. A lawsuit against the city by Eric Vassell for his son’s wrongful death remains pending.
Vassell’s killing became a flashpoint in the debate over the NYPD’s use of force and its tactics in responding to people with mental illness.
“Saheed was a victim of the NYPD and New York City’s failed healthcare system,” Eric Vassell said. “Saheed was someone who helped his neighbors and was loved by his community — not a violent criminal, the way Mr. Zeldin’s misleading ad tries to make him out to be.”
The city has attempted some policing reforms in the years since, including piloting a program to send mental health professionals, rather than cops, to respond to 911 calls involving people in mental distress. Earlier this year Mayor Eric Adams announced the program would expand to Central Brooklyn, among other areas. But the program’s effectiveness thus far has been thwarted somewhat by the fact the vast majority of relevant calls during the pilot in Harlem were still routed to the NYPD, per program data.
Zeldin, a Republican member of Congress from Long Island, has made crime the central focus of his gubernatorial campaign, seeking to paint the state as a Mad Max-esque hellscape of scum and villainy due to actions by Democratic lawmakers and district attorneys. The Zeldin campaign did not respond to a request for comment regarding Vassell’s statement.
The call for an apology was joined by some local electeds who rep the area where Vassell’s death took place.
“Saheed was killed in my district and I join his family in demanding an apology from Lee Zeldin immediately,” tweeted state Sen. Zellnor Myrie. “You run your mouth a lot about law and order except when it comes to your BFF Donald Trump, the insurrection, or your own campaign, #XeroxZeldin. Don’t be quiet now.”