Special to South Florida Times
Ernest Vassell’s family members and friends gathered at St. Mary’s Missionary Baptist Church in the Washington Park section of North Miami Beach Friday night to try to make sense of his death.
The 57-year-old Vassell, who was autistic, was shot and killed by NMB police on Aug. 31 after officers responded to 911 calls reporting that a man was carrying a rifle and threatening a dog. Officers shot Vassell around 5:15 p.m. at Northeast 155th Terrace and 14th Avenue, near his home.
Police said they then discovered that Vassell was carrying a toy rifle. He was airlifted to Miami’s Jackson Memorial Hospital and later declared dead.
Thomas Carney, NMB police director issued a statement giving this account of what happened: “The officers gave command to drop the weapon. At that time, the commands were ignored. The individual carrying the weapon turned and, at that time, turned and pointed it at the officers. Shots were fired.”
As part of standard NMB police procedure, the so far unidentified officer who fired at Vassell, was placed on paid administrative leave while the department investigates the shooting.
Vassell’s family and friends are challenging the police account.
“I still don’t believe it,” said Vassell’s sister Claire Harding. “Everybody that knows him knows he is a good person. Even though he was different, he would go out of his way to help anyone. We just want justice.”
Vassell, who developed autism after suffering a brain injury as a child, lived in the Washington Park neighborhood with Harding.
Eric Simms, a member at St. Mary’s, described Vassell as a man who “feared guns, knives, police and everything else.”
“If the police would have looked, they could have seen he was special. He would not hurt a flea. This is a shock to all of us,” Simms said.
Vassell’s brother Anthony said that it was “like [Ernest] had a sixth sense. He never wanted to be around police. He was petrified of them. If they told him to do anything, he would do it.”
For the 35 years Vassell lived in Washington Park, the only thing he would pick up off the street was paper, Velma Rivers said. “He would step over everything else and never pick up a knife or gun. Whoever the officer was surely did not know him,” she said.
Keith Henry, a member of the Washington Park Voters Council, said that all the officers in the area knew Vassell well. “They saw him all the time, so [the officer who shot him] must have been new,” he said. “And because he was afraid of the police, if he had a toy gun and was asked to throw it down he would have done so. To say that he pointed at the police is a lie, a cover-up.”
Dwayne S. Fudge, pastor of St. Mary’s, added, “But because of Ernest’s life, because we know him, there is concern about what went down. This never should have happened.”
Fudge added that the meeting was not called to “throw dirt” on the police but to get answers. “This is not a platform to bring dissention between the community and the police. We want the investigation to be clear,” Fudge said.
All the stories told about Vassell’s character are the same, Fudge said, adding, “so there is no way you can’t take that into account.”
Cynthia Roby may be reached at CynthiaRoby@bellsouth.net
Photo: James Forbes/For South Florida Times