Family of New York man shot dead by police demand Lee Zeldin stop using footage in ‘racist’ ad

The family of Saheed Vassell, 34, have accused Mr Zeldin of knowingly running an ad that dehumanizes Vassell

Andrea Blanco
Tuesday 08 November 2022 16:34 GMT
Lee Zeldin campaign event addressing crimes against women in New York City

The family of a man shot and killed by an NYPD officer have taken legal action against Republican gubernatorial candidate Lee Zeldin for using footage from the shooting in a campaign ad they deem both misleading and racist.

Amid an unexpectedly tight race for the New York governorship, the family of Saheed Vassell, 34, who was fatally shot by police during a mental health episode in 2018, have accused Mr Zeldin of knowingly running an ad that dehumanizes Vassell. They claimed on Monday that they’ve requested a retraction of the commercial to Mr Zeldin to no avail.

The ad, which was released in late September, shows footage of Vassell pointing a metal pipe to people in the Brooklyn neighbourhood of Crown Heights, just minutes before he was gunned down by officers who believed he was armed. A voiceover in the ad tells viewers, “On November 8, vote like your life depends on it. It just might.”

“Today I’m asking Lee Zeldin to take down that racist ad,” Vassell’s father Eric Vassell said, per the Daily Beast. “If [he] wants to make this about Saheed, he can call for an end to police brutality and support the mental health needs of New Yorkers like my son. Instead, he has chosen to enrich himself and misrepresent the final moments of Saheed’s life.”

The ad also featured several clips of crimes in what Mr Zeldin dubbed “Hochul’s New York”. Half of the clips, including the one showing Vassell’s mental health crisis, happened before his Democratic rival Kathy Hochul became governor in 2021, while one of them is from an incident in Oakland, California.

Mr Zeldin has largely shrugged off previous accuracy concerns over the ad that remains on his social media pages and has reportedly not responded to the Vassell family. The Independent has reached out to his campaign for comment.

Saheed Vassell was holding a metal pipe and having a mental health episode when he was shot by officers who thought he was armed
Saheed Vassell was holding a metal pipe and having a mental health episode when he was shot by officers who thought he was armed (CBS/Lee Zeldin campaign)

After Vassell was shot by the NYPD, an investigation by Attorney General Letitia James’ Special Investigations and Prosecutions Unit determined that there were no legal grounds to prosecute the officers who opened fire on Vassell, but advised more training, amNewYork reported.

During a press conference on the steps of City Hall on Monday, Vassell’s family argued that Mr Zeldin had used Vassell as a political pawn in a fear-mongering strategy to unseat Ms Hochul.

“They asked Lee Zeldin to remove this ad many times. First themselves, then through a press agent, then through a cease and desist sent from my firm and yet that ad remains up and Lee Zeldin chose to ignore this family’s request. That’s why we’re here today, this was not our first choice,” MK Kaishian, the family’s attorney, said.

“I also want to say, they are not here on the behalf of any political candidate, or any political party, They’re not acting on behalf of Kathy Hochul or the Democratic party and if anyone made this political, it is Lee Zeldin. [He] chose to use Saheed’s final moments in a campaign ad in which he spent seven figures to fund more money for his campaign.”

Mr Zeldin has been accused of weaponising fears from New Yorkers about recent spikes in crimes.

The gubernatorial race in the Empire State has surprisingly become competitive at the eleventh hour as an average of polls analysed by FiveThirtyEight indicates that Ms Hochul remains only 7.8 points ahead of her opponent. The usually-de-facto blue state has not elected a Republican governor in nearly two decades.

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