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Saheed Vassell’s death shows why police have too much discretion to kill.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

I published an article this morning about California’s proposed bill to rein in police shootings by raising the legal standard for officers’ use of lethal force. A deadly police shooting in New York last night underscored the need for that higher threshold.

Five NYPD officers shot and killed Vassell, a 34-year-old black man, on a street corner in Brooklyn. NYPD officials told news outlets that 911 callers had reported that they had seen a man brandishing what appeared to be a gun. The object turned out to be a chrome shower head, which the department claims Vassell had pointed at the officers before they shot him. (Vassell’s father told reporters that his son had bipolar disorder, making this one of many police shooting cases where the victim had a mental illness.)

The NYPD has circulated stills from nearby surveillance footage that support their version of events, but haven’t released any clips of the encounter. While the city plans to equip all NYPD officers with body cameras by year’s end, the officers involved in Wednesday’s shooting apparently weren’t wearing them.

Even with these gaps, the fact that Vassell wasn’t wielding a gun raises questions about why the officers chose to open fire. As I noted in my article, most states use a legal standard that prioritizes an officer’s instincts in determining whether they acted reasonably. California’s proposed bill would instead require police to exhaust all means of de-escalation before resorting to lethal force, which could then only be used to prevent imminent physical harm. It’s impossible to know if that standard would’ve saved Vassell’s life. But it certainly couldn’t have done more harm.