msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 9/1/2011 4:10:31 PM ET 2011-09-01T20:10:31

A man whose family said he was autistic was killed by police in North Miami Beach after pointing a real-looking toy gun at an officer, police said Thursday.

Police officers responded to 911 calls about a man seen walking around the neighborhood Wednesday afternoon with a rifle, North Miami Beach Police Director Thomas Carney said.

One emergency caller reported the man had pointed the rifle at a dog, NBC Miami reported.

Officers gave commands for the man to drop the weapon, but he refused and pointed it at an officer, Carney said.

The man identified as Ernest Vassell, 57, was carrying a realistic toy that could be confused with a rifle or shotgun, police said.

"It's very tragic," Carney said. "People don't understand that police officers are going to treat you like that's a real gun until we determine differently. They're not going to take any chances."

The victim's sister said Vassell was autistic and had mental challenges.

"They murdered him in cold blood for a toy gun!" the victim's sister, Claire Harding, told WFOR. "That’s no reason for you to kill somebody!"

"Ernest did not deserve to die like this. Everyone is still in shock and disbelief," Marva Vassell-Gordon said.

His neighbors said it was obvious that Ernest Vassell had a disability, and police should have known.

"It's so strange to me that I can see it, and then, the police didn't see it. Or they didn't look for it," said Conroy Anderson, a family friend.

Police were not immediately releasing further information on the shooting pending an investigation.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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