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Need to Know: Saheed Vassell, Stephon Clark, and a Plea for Police Gun Control

In the past month, the killing of two more unarmed black men at the hands of police has sparked a change in America’s contentious conversation on gun control.

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Photo via Dave Hosford

Saheed Vassell, a 34-year-old resident of Crown Heights, Brooklyn, was killed by New York police on Wednesday, April 4th. Coming just two weeks after the fatal police shooting of unarmed Sacramento, California resident Stephon Clark, the incident has since sparked local protest, rallies, and outrage — shifting at least some of America’s larger gun control conversation to racially charged policing tactics and the excessive use of state force.

On Wednesday, Vassell, a man known in his Brooklyn neighborhood to be mentally unstable, had reportedly been pointing what appeared to be a gun at bystanders walking near the intersection of Utica Ave and Montgomery Street. Responding to calls about the supposedly erratic man, police officers arrived on the scene, quickly drew their weapons and unloaded ten rounds at Vassell, eventually discovering that he had not been carrying a gun, but instead a skinny silver pipe with a round attachment at the end.

According to reporters from the New York Times, who interviewed a number of nearby business owners, neighborhood residents, and witnesses, Vassell was an active member of the local community, whose struggles with mental illness were well known to both residents and police.

“Every cop in this neighborhood knows him,” John Fuller, 59, a Crown Heights resident told the Times.

While the country at large has taken up gun control as a political focus in the aftermath of February’s deadly school shooting in Parkland, Florida, African-American communities across the U.S. have continually pushed for comprehensive police reform in response to racially charged police violence as a facet of gun control.

Less than a month before Vassell’s untimely death, police fired twenty shots at Stephon Clark, an unarmed black man holding a cell phone in the backyard of his parents’ home in Sacramento, California. Reminiscent of the police killings of Philando Castile, Freddie Gray, and Michael Brown, whose 2014 death in Ferguson, Missouri lead to the creation of the Black Lives Matter movement, Clark’s death has inspired weeks of continued protest. But while mass shootings like the recent tragedy in Parkland spark national marches and legislative lobbying, police officers involved in the deaths of unarmed black men are almost always acquitted of any criminal charges.

"These incidents are still occurring, and the obvious thing to say is that there is still work to do," Yale Law professor Tracey Meares, who served on President Obama's Task Force on 21st Century Policing, said in an interview with NPR.

In Brooklyn, protests have continued at the corner where Vassell was killed for the past two days. On an institutional level, there have been no indications from the NYPD that the latest officer-involved shooting will change the way the department uses deadly force. According to police officials, none of the officers involved in Wednesday’s shooting were wearing active body cameras.

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