The family of Najee Seabrooks, killed by Paterson police, share their grief during a rally at City Hall in Paterson on Tuesday night. 03/07/2023 Steve Hockstein | For NJ Advance
The Paterson police officers who shot and killed Najee Seabrooks last Friday confronted him only after their superiors turned down at least two golden opportunities to find a peaceful solution.
That might not be criminal, but it’s horrifying, and it does seem to violate state rules that require police to use violence only as a last resort.
This botched operation, coming on top of the ugly record of brutality and corruption in this department in recent years, leads to an unavoidable conclusion, one embraced last week by several civil rights leaders:
The federal Department of Justice needs to rescue the people of Paterson by moving to take control of this broken department, just as it did in Newark to stop the brutality there, and with the State Police to stop troopers who were targeting Black drivers.
“We need federal oversight,” says Liza Chowdhury, the director of the state-funded anti-violence group that employed Seabrooks, the Paterson Healing Collective. “We need to do what Newark did.”
That’s the best long-term solution, but it would take several years to implement. The Department of Justice just announced an intervention in Louisville, resulting from the Breonna Taylor shooting, which occurred three years ago.
So, in the meantime, Attorney General Matt Platkin needs to intervene aggressively in Paterson, as the state did in Camden under his predecessor, Anne Milgram. In the end, police departments report to Platkin, so the responsibility lands on him and Gov. Phil Murphy.
The fury in Paterson over this killing is rooted in the reasonable conviction that Seabrooks would be alive today if the police accepted outside help.
At St. Joseph’s Hospital, about a mile away, a trained team designated as Passaic County’s first responders during mental health crises like this, was ready to go on the day Seabrook was killed. But this time, the police never called, as they have in past cases.
“We must ask the question: Why were they not called?” asks the anguished CEO at St. Joseph’s, Kevin Slavin.
There’s more: While barricading himself in a bathroom during a fit of paranoia, Seabrooks called and texted his co-workers, asking them to help. Eight of them rushed to his apartment on Mill Street and begged police to let them speak with Seabrooks, who was communicating with them on a group text message. They urged him to surrender to police, but he would not.
“I need to hear one of y’all’s voices,” Seabrooks texted.
“We’re in the lobby,” one team member wrote back. “We’re here bro. We need to know you’re ok. We’re not leaving until we see you.”
Again, the police turned down the help. One team member, Teddy Martinez, said he showed the texts to the supervising officer at the scene. Still, no one from the Healing Collective was allowed upstairs to talk with Seabrook, even through the closed bathroom door.
It is too early to judge the actions of the two officers who fired their guns. The police say Seabrooks lunged at them with a knife , and other sources told the Paterson Press that Seabrooks hit an officer with a toilet seat and threw some substance into the eyes of another.
But why did it come to that? That’s where this department’s dark history of corruption and brutality comes into play. This department has burned the trust of the community to the ground. Five officers are in prison today after admitting in court that they robbed innocent people for years as a crew. A 2021 video showed two other officers pummeling a suspect in the hallway of police headquarters. Complaints of brutality are frequent, and punishment of officers is rare.
Their approach to people in mental health crises reveals a SWAT mentality that is bound to cause more bloodshed. In 2019, a 27-year-old man, Jameek Lowery, died in police custody after a mental breakdown. Police say he died as a result of drugs he had taken, but his family and many others in Paterson say he died after police beat him in an ambulance on the way to the hospital.
A pending lawsuit on that case cites other shooting deaths of people in mental health crises, including Ramon Andrade in 2017 and Saulo Del Rosario in 2012. The plaintiffs’ lawyers reviewed use-of-force reports and concluded that Paterson police used more force in their encounters with emotionally disturbed people.
To some, including Rev. Charles Boyer, a prominent civil rights leader who also favors federal intervention, the answer is to remove police entirely in most cases, and send unarmed mental health experts. He runs an anti-violence program in Trenton that recently won praise from the mayor for helping reduce shootings.
“The mentality of these police is to control, not to help,” Boyer says. “It’s just inherent in who they are as a culture. You can’t teach a dog to eat with a fork.”
The larger task is to rebuild this department from scratch, with outside help, as in Newark. That came after the New Jersey ACLU agitated for years.
“Paterson is particularly bad and they’re getting a lot of our attention right now,” says Alexander Shalom of the ACLU. “Getting the DOJ (Department of Justice) involved might be a good thing. But it’s not an immediate thing.”
But even opening a federal investigation might help, according to Larry Hamm, a crusader against police violence.
“From the moment it became public that the DOJ was investigating Newark, we saw a change in police behavior,” he says. “The feds need to come in, but in the meantime I’m not against a state takeover.”
For now, Paterson is a city on edge, and some worry that violence could break out if another police killing occurs. That, of course, would be heartbreaking to the crew at the Paterson Healing Collective. Their friend’s legacy, they say, must be a turn towards better policing and less violence.
And they are convinced, with good reason, that it’s unlikely to happen without the help of the federal government.
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