Paterson police killing and department takeover spur attorney general to stress the need for alternative approaches to crisis intervention
Social justice advocates say they’re encouraged to see the state attorney general create an office and position that aims to develop official responses to mental health emergencies that do not involve the police and are community-based. The new entity is known as the Office of Alternative and Community Responses.
“I was very moved. It really shows to me that (Attorney General Matthew Platkin’s) ready to play hardball in a way that will produce material, positive change,” said Jason Williams, an associate professor of justice studies at Montclair State University. “This is a very big deal and I think it also underscores that … he’s listening to the community.”
The move by the attorney general comes after his office assumed control of the Paterson Police Department in late March after police shot and killed Najee Seabrooks. The 31-year-old anti-violence activist who worked for the Paterson Healing Collectivewas experiencing a mental health crisis when he was killed by police on March 3. When Platkin announced that his office would be taking over the department, he also appointed former New York City police officer Isa Abbassi to head up the Paterson police starting on May 9.
Listening to the community
Platkin held a “listening session” in early May at St. Luke Baptist Church in Paterson, the first of several meetings scheduled by law enforcement officials after the attorney general announced the takeover. Abbassi also held a series of community listening sessions in the city’s six wards throughout May.
On Wednesday, the Paterson Police Department held a virtual meeting for city residents who couldn’t attend the in-person sessions, giving them a chance to express their opinions about the police department and public safety. The department also plans to host community roundtable discussions throughout the city.
“With the death of Najee, we suffered the greatest loss. That this young man called 911 for help and instead he was met with lethal force because the police are not equipped to deal with those type of incidents,” said Dr. Liza Chowdhury, the executive director of Reimagining Justice, Inc. and the Paterson Healing Collective. “So I’m happy that the AG is recognizing that and hopefully this is a catalyst for change and that law enforcement are not the ‘go-to’ for these type of incidents,” she said.
Heading up the new office
The Office of Alternative and Community Responses will be directed by Tiffany Wilson, an assistant prosecutor in the Union County Prosecutor’s Office who supervised all of the county’s diversionary programs that offered alternatives to incarceration, including the county’s mental health jail diversion, recovery court, veterans diversion and pre-trial intervention programs, according to a news release from the attorney general’s office.
Representatives for Platkin said Wilson would not be immediately available for interviews.
“For far too long, police across the nation have been called upon to be a cure-all, to solve various societal problems and assume roles well beyond that of law enforcement, sometimes without proper training or adequate resources,” said Platkin in a statement. “It is unfair to ask so much of our officers, and it also fails to acknowledge the needs of the communities we serve.
“By bringing on a seasoned public servant with a track record for being innovative in the area of criminal justice diversion and mental health services, we know we can develop new tools and methods to address the challenges faced in our communities. It is long overdue that we move beyond the existing one-size-fits-all approach and devise alternative paths to improve public safety and public health in New Jersey.”
Taking mental health emergencies in pairs
Wilson is also tasked with carrying out the statewide expansion of a pilot program that pairs a police officer with a behavioral health specialist to respond to mental health emergencies. Known as ARRIVE Together, for Alternative Responses to Reduce Instances of Violence and Escalation, the program was first tested by state police in Cumberland County in December 2021, along with the state Department of Human Services. A planned expansion of the program will bring the total number of police departments involved to over 40 municipalities across nine counties, according to the attorney general’s office. New Jersey has dedicated over $10.2 million to the pilot program in the state budget Gov. Murphy signed into law in late June.
“She seems like she’s fair and she’s concerned and she’s listening,” Valerie Freeman, a lifelong resident of Paterson, said of Wilson. “When I had a conversation with her, she seemed forthcoming and she seemed like she’s willing to work with the community,” said Freeman, 57, an executive board member of Paterson Cares, Inc., a nonprofit organization and a commissioner with the Paterson board of education.
According to a report released in March 2023 by The Brookings Institution that analyzed data from 342 police calls for service and follow-ups involving the pilot program, 97% of cases did not use force and 98% of cases did not result in an arrest during an ARRIVE Together call for service or follow up. The Brookings Institution analysis of the pilot program took place between December 2021 and January 2023.
Still troubled by police participation
But advocates like Williams of Montclair State University, still have concerns about the pilot program because he says it still, to some extent, “utilizes traditional law enforcement agents.”
“I’ve said it before and I think a lot of my colleagues have said it, that ARRIVE Together, in its first iteration, was a step in the right direction. The program’s very existence is an acknowledgement that perhaps police are not the most well-equipped, or appropriate responders to mental health crisis calls,” said Racquel Romans-Henry, the policy director at Salvation and Social Justice in Trenton. “But … in every chance I get, I stress that a community-led response is very different from an office of community response,” she said.
Romans-Henry said there is a distinction in that a community-led response centers the communities that are directly impacted in the decision making and the actual leadership of the programs and the services, while also adequately supporting and funding those programs.
“So while this is encouraging to see the office being established, what we want to see is significant investments in the community-led models that are currently existing,” Romans-Henry said.
“I think that as we communicate with this new office to share our ideas and our hopes, as well as … have those initial conversations, what we hope is that the ARRIVE Together pilot that already exists starts to transform and go into the direction of non-police involvement and shed the skin of having plainclothes officers involved,” added Zellie Thomas, the lead organizer of Black Lives Matter Paterson.
As for Chowdhury, she hopes that the state will involve groups like the Paterson Healing Collective and help them build their capacity while not starting from scratch.
“Because communities like Trenton, Newark, Paterson, Camden, Jersey City, Vineland, we already have organizations on the ground that are dealing with crisis,” she said. “And we can partner with the AG’s office to build our capacity to respond to mental health crises. I think that we can be even more effective because we do deal with violence and sometimes violence might be the final symptom of ongoing crises. I hope that the AG considers supporting programs like ours.”
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