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Crisis response groups set to get more state funding

NJ Spotlight News

Lawmakers pass bill to expand programs that address behavioral health emergencies

The Seabrooks-Washington Community-Led Crisis Response Act would Increase state funding to nonprofits that provide de-escalation and follow-up support in callouts to nonviolent behavioral health and substance use emergencies.. Left: A poster of Andrew Jerome Washington, who was shot and killed by Jersey City police was displayed at a rally on Sept. 5, 2023. Right: Najee Seabrooks, who was shot and killed by Paterson police in March 2023 while he was experiencing a mental health crisis

Community-led nonprofits that provide de-escalation, stabilization and follow-up support for communities experiencing high rates of violence would receive additional state funding under a bill that cleared the Senate and the Assembly.

The groups would be able to use the money to expand services where team members respond to emergency calls that involve behavioral health issues or substance abuse, instead of sending armed police officers.

The bill also aims to create pilot programs in counties, including Hudson, that do not have community crisis response teams. The bill now heads to Gov. Phil Murphy’s desk to be signed into law.

It’s an effort to expand the use of nonprofit organizations comprised of community members from the cities and counties responding to these behavioral health emergencies to reduce instances of violence and deaths.

The push comes after Najee Seabrooks and Andrew Jerome Washington, who were both Black, were killed by police officers last year in Paterson and Jersey City, respectively, while experiencing mental health crises. Since 2015, fatal police encounters in New Jersey have resulted in the deaths of at least 86 members of the public, according to the bill. Almost half, or 48%, of those who lost their lives were Black.

Racial disparities

New Jersey has one of the highest racial disparities among victims of police violence in the country, the legislation notes. Black New Jersey residents are killed at a rate 8.3 times higher than white residents.

‘This is a step forward for particularly the communities that have been historically impacted by police misconduct and police violence and have not witnessed any semblance of justice in regards to the trauma that they have been historically experiencing.’ — Zellie Thomas, Black Lives Matter Paterson

“Our communities have long since said that the police are oftentimes not the appropriate parties to respond to mental health, nonviolent substance use calls,” said Racquel Romans-Henry, the policy director at Salvation and Social Justice in Trenton.

“And what we’re seeing here is that when we say … we’re able to resolve these situations … we’re committed, we’re invested in our communities, we just need the support from the state to allow us to do those things. Now, we’re seeing that that’s actually being met with real dollars and cents,” she said.

Details of the bill

Under the bill, which is known as the Seabrooks-Washington Community-Led Crisis Response Act, the attorney general is required to create a pilot program in Camden, Essex, Hudson, Mercer, Middlesex and Passaic counties to allow eligible municipalities and community-based organizations to operate community crisis response teams. To be eligible to receive a grant for the pilot program, a municipality must meet criteria for population density and have an organization that operates as a “violence interrupter community street team.”

A “violence interrupter community street team” is a nonprofit community service provider that aims to develop and implement violence intervention and prevention programming for communities impacted by higher than average rates of violence, with a focus on gun violence, according to the bill. These nonprofits also aim to work with people and groups “to build their capacity to seek healthy methods” for addressing and resolving conflict.

“This is a step forward for particularly the communities that have been historically impacted by police misconduct and police violence and have not witnessed any semblance of justice in regards to the trauma that they have been historically experiencing,” Zellie Thomas, the lead organizer for Black Lives Matter Paterson, said of the bill after it passed the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee last week.

Seabrooks was a 31-year-old anti-violence activist who worked for the Paterson Healing Collective before he was shot and killed by the Paterson police in early March after experiencing a mental health crisis. Later that month, Attorney General Matthew Platkin announced that his office would take over the Paterson Police Department and appointed Isa Abbassi, then the chief of strategic initiatives with the New York Police Department, to lead the Paterson Police Department. Abbassi officially started as the officer in charge of the department in May.

Last month, Platkin announced that Paterson would be the first municipality in Passaic County to participate in the state’s Arrive Together program, which stands for Alternative Responses to Reduce Instances of Violence and Escalation. The program includes several models operating across the state, including a co-response where police officers are paired with mental health clinicians who respond together to mental health calls.

In Paterson, the program includes three parts, including one in which a clinician from a nonprofit health care provider will work with emergency dispatchers in Paterson “to share best practices and gather information” about the types of calls that go to the dispatch center, according to a news release from the state attorney general’s office. The goal would be to develop a mental health alternative-response program, which would not involve police officers, for “appropriate calls” coming through the 911 system.

Changing how police respond in NJ

In late August of last year, Jersey City police shot and killed Washington, 52, after responding to a call about his mental health emergency. His family, who were the ones who called for help, said they did not expect a police response. Washington’s death came six months after Paterson police killed Seabrooks.

The Arrive Together program has not been implemented in Jersey City, according to a spokesperson for the state attorney general’s office.

Under the bill, municipalities and organizations seeking grants would be required to show an established relationship with a state-approved harm reduction center, be a state-approved community violence intervention program, or both.

Additionally, the state Department of Law and Public Safety would be required to prioritize issuing grants to municipalities and organizations that currently operate as a “violence interrupter community street team” and have been approved by the state for no less than two years, according to the bill.

“I’m deeply impressed by this. They put the utmost sincerity into this. It seems made for the community,” Jason Williams, an associate professor of justice studies at Montclair State University, said of the bill. However, Williams expressed concern about housing the pilot program under the purview of the state attorney general’s office.

“Some of that established trust that he (Attorney General Platkin) has with (the) community and with advocates, isn’t a for sure thing. It’s not the type of trust that we’re going to be able to rely on for the foreseeable future. AGs (attorneys general) come and they go. So I understand the logic of the Legislature perhaps thinking they can trust him with that, but what happens when he’s no longer the AG?” Williams asked.

The legislation would also require a community crisis response advisory council to be created in the Department of Law and Public Safety. The council would be required to provide the department with “best practices and recommendations” concerning the development of a community crisis response program in the form of an annual report and determine a “viable pipeline” to train and create a pathway for community members to become mental health screeners from within “directly impacted communities.”

The council would consist of 13 members, including people who have prior involvement with the criminal justice system, along with people who have expertise in crisis response, harm reduction services, or both and who have experience advocating for their communities, according to the bill. The legislation allocates $12 million and provides that grants awarded under the pilot program to applicants in each eligible municipality cannot exceed $2 million per municipality.

“When you’re dealing with issues of justice and equity, now is always the time,” said Romans-Henry. “Getting this through the lame duck session was particularly important because we’re obviously coming up against a new election cycle.”

“So we want to make sure that our communities are secure in terms of having the supports, the investments, the resources to take the necessary steps to really … address a lot of the very sensitive and unique needs of our communities,” she said.

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