Saheed Vassell and the Inadequacy of Reform at the Margins

On April 4 (fifty years to the day after Martin Luther King Jr was shot in Memphis, as it happens) four NYPD officers shot and killed a man named Saheed Vassell at the corner of Montgomery and Utica in Crown Heights.

Vassell was brandishing a metal pipe and pretending it was a gun.  He was shot nine times – in a city lauded over the past year for its efforts at policing reform.

Over the last several months, particularly during his re-election campaign, New York Mayor Bill De Blasio received considerable attention for the reduction in crime during his first term.  De Blasio ran in 2013 as a police reformer critical of NYPD's excesses and won in spite of the doom and gloom, bad old days, predictions of his opponents.

Over the course of his first term, De Blasio pushed for reforms that would have police engaging in fewer stop and frisk encounters, making fewer arrests and issuing fewer summonses, and more responsive to the concerns of the communities they patrol.  These are all good things.  In 2013, NYPD made over 316,000 arrests, 71.5% of which were for misdemeanors.  Not only did the number of arrests decline each year since, but the proportion of those arrests that were for misdemeanors did as well.  In 2017, city police made 239,000 arrests, 66.5% of which were for misdemeanors.  

Fewer arrests for minor offenses means fewer people being run through the system for non-violent or victimless crimes (though misdemeanors are not necessarily non-violent or victimless, they are more likely to be so).  Fewer arrests for misdemeanors also indicates a police department less concerned with quotas and more willing to deploy different strategies for reducing crime.  All indications are that the strategy is working.

In 2017, the crime rate in New York City declined in each of the seven categories that the FBI tracks most closely (homicide, rape, robbery, felony assault, burglary, grand larceny, and automobile theft).  Crime overall in the city, as measured in those categories, declined by nearly 5%.  The homicide rate fell to its lowest level in sixty years.  

This is all important in the context of a city that was wracked by controversy and protests after multiple police killings early in De Blasio's administration.  It's important because De Blasio was elected as a liberal, soft-on-crime reformer.  It's important because it shows that fewer arrests do not mean more crime; pressure on police to be present in their communities does not make them more vulnerable; hysteria over a "Ferguson Effect" is bullshit.

But Saheed Vassell was still shot in the street.

Apparently, Mr. Vassell was well-known to both police and residents in the neighborhood.  He worked part-time but had mental health issues and was the subject of little more than harmless nuisance complaints.  He had been issued dozens of summonses and had been taken for psychiatric treatment before by police.  The police who responded on April 4, however, were not those officers who knew Vassell's condition.  According to the NYPD's account of the event, four officers from specialized units responded to the 911 calls and 5-10 seconds after their arrival on the scene Vassell was dead.

The security camera footage that the police released distinguishes this incident from the abhorrent killing of, for example, Eric Garner in 2014.  Where Garner was clearly unarmed and killed by an officer in the course of using a technique to subdue him that was banned by the department, Vassell looks armed.  The department's description of the officers who responded distinguishes this incident from the killing of, for example, Akai Gurley in 2015.  Where Gurley was killed by an inexperienced officer who fired his gun in a panic and called his union rep before calling for medical assistance, Vassell was shot by officers with years of experience and only when he turned and raised a metal object that he clearly chose for the resemblance it bore to a gun.

But rather than making this particular incident forgivable, the lack of easily assigned culpability brings into focus the inadequacy of reform to a system that is thoroughly broken.

To be clear, De Blasio's reforms are welcome and I hope to see them continue (along with the implicit bias training that he keeps indicating is on the horizon, but that never seems to draw any nearer).  I won't minimize the undeniable good of giving police the flexibility to deal with communities in a way that doesn't involve arresting everyone for every infraction.  A reform that keeps even just one person from spending months in Rikers for a mistake that would warrant, for a child of my means or complexion, little more than community service or a stern call home to parents is worth pursuing.  The danger of becoming infatuated with reform, however, is when we expect it to solve a problem that is more complex.

Pruning a plant can help it grow but only when the soil itself isn't teeming with fungus or the roots aren't rotting in the ground.

I'm glad new programs have lead police to let marijuana smokers and day-drinkers and turnstile jumpers off with warnings, but how does neighborhood policing that has made (some) communities safer and given (many) citizens the opportunity to collaborate with police dictate that officers deal with a situation that is more uncertain?  When the call came in, uniformed officers who knew the community didn't respond, but rather plain-clothes officers who shot even as a witness tried to warn them not to.  Can De Blasio's neighborhood policing strategy possibly be sustainable when communities don't know which calls are going to get beat cops they see every morning and which calls will get someone shot?

If teenagers steal candy and magazines from my corner store, do I call the police?  If I do, then how will they respond?  Is reporting it worth the cost?

Changing the way some police work in the community doesn't change the broader culture in the department.  Oppositional or reactionary strategies that have been part of training and attitudes for decades might take decades to shift on a more permanent basis.  Reform of policing can't build a world where someone like Saheed Vassell has uninterrupted access to medication or adequate mental health care.  Reform of policing doesn't change a justice system that lets a person fall through the cracks even when his illness and circumstances summon him to court dozens of times.

When Michael Brown was shot and killed in Ferguson, Missouri it quickly became clear that racism in the city's institutions was an immediate precipitating factor.  Enormous and militarized responses to black residents protesting peacefully, a largely white municipal government's propensity to make up for its deficits by fining black residents for nuisance violations, and a culture of explicit racism in city hall and the police department all came to national light in the weeks following the killing.  But imagining police killings as the product of racist police is much too easy.  Imagining every police shooting beginning as Alton Sterling's did with shouts of "I'll shoot you in your fucking head!" makes the problem into a caricature, even while our failure to prosecute such shootings are invaluable illustrations of the intractability of the problem.  Imagining every killing to be the product of a specific sort of bias makes it too easy to isolate the problem to the police themselves.

Make no mistake, people of color and particularly Black Americans are disproportionately the target of police violence and the excesses of the criminal justice system writ large.  The problem, however,  is that when bias is baked into policing, and precincts that are largely black and latino have been policed as occupied territory for decades, and trust is broken in the community, and gentrification devours neighborhoods, and prison becomes an alternative to mental health care or funded schools, and public defenders are underfunded, prosecutors are incentivized to overcharge, health care is hard to come by, opportunity is scarce, and poverty is pervasive and entrenched, it's no longer necessary for anyone to act in bad faith.

When a criminal justice system is as broken as ours, it requires no real effort to chew up people and spit them out broken.  It needs no slur-wielding racist to produce massive racial disparities and devastate communities of color.  It does all of that on its own because it's set up to do so.  Neutrality favors injustice when a machine is built with unjust components.  The system we have does not require a nudge to produce tragedy and injustice, but rather requires a massive force pushing in the direction of change and equity.  Reform at the margins should be encouraged but we should never let it be a substitute.  It can cushion the blow or divert its impact, but change on a massive scale is what it takes to build trust and pursue equitable justice.

Saheed Vassell should not be dead.  The NYPD no doubt released the security footage that showed the moments leading up to his death because the average viewer will sympathize with the police and understand their reaction.  I'm not sure I disagree.  But to think that absolving police officers of 5-10 seconds of responsibility put the matter to rest is to miss the point.

A man's life is never zero-sum.  It wasn't a choice between Saheed Vassell's life and the lives of the police.  They should all be alive right now and those who imply that our choice was between their lives and his are playing politics with bullets.  There were a dozen ways to save Vassell's life before he ever picked up that piece of pipe and a dozen ways that the city and the country failed him.  To think that the injustice of this man's death can be explained by analyzing his actions and the actions of four police and a handful of witnesses over the course of an hour is to miss the point.

The point is that Saheed Vassell was killed and that we – his neighbors, his brothers and sisters, his ostensible advocates – could have stopped it.