By Tom Moran | Star-Ledger Editorial Board
Najee Seabrooks, 31, of Paterson
How long will the citizens of Paterson be forced to endure the brutality and corruption of their rogue police force?
That question is now being asked with new fury after officers shot and killed Najee Seabrooks Friday afternoon. Seabrooks, 31, had barricaded himself in his home during an apparent mental health crisis. And for reason we don’t know yet, police entered the apartment, and two officers fired their guns at Seabrooks, who died soon afterwards.
It is too early to judge the split-second decision of those officers, and sources in the city say Seabrooks may have threatened them with knives. But we can and must ask now: Why did police allow the crisis to escalate in the first place?
The most pressing question is why they turned down help from Seabrooks’ friends and co-workers at the Paterson Healing Collective, who rushed to the scene after Seabrooks contacted them by phone.
Workers at the Healing Collective have earned wide praise for their work to limit the violence in Paterson, helping victims and urging them to avoid retaliation. They are trained professionals and they wanted to help on Friday, begging police to let them talk to Seabrooks. Instead, they heard the gunshots that ended their friend’s life while waiting helplessly outside.
“If they had been able to get in there, I’m convinced he would be alive today,” says the Rev. Charles Boyer, a civil rights leader who runs a similar anti-violence collective in Trenton.
This killing of Seabrooks, if it is to have any meaning, must mark a turning point when the political powers decide to finally clean up this mess, even in the face of opposition from powerful police unions. So far, they have all failed miserably, including Gov. Phil Murphy, Mayor Andre Sayegh, and Passaic County Prosecutor Camelia Valdes.
On Friday, police did take some steps to deescalate during the four-hour standoff. They called in a relative of Seabrooks’, reportedly an uncle working as a police officer in Clifton, in an attempt to talk him down. Unconfirmed accounts from official sources say Seabrooks was distraught and paranoid, barricaded in the bathroom, that he lit a small fire, and may have threatened officers with a knife, and harmed himself. At this stage, it’s sensible to wait for Platkin’s report before putting credence in any of that. Body-cam recordings should be released within 20 days, according to state guidelines.
But if this case holds any lesson, it is the urgent need to change the way we respond to people in mental health crises, to send social workers with degrees ahead of cops with guns. Platkin recently expanded a successful pilot program that pairs mental health workers with state troopers on these calls, and Sayegh recently won a $600,000 grant to establish a similar program in Paterson. That effort, a small one, came too late to help Seabrooks. “We know there’s more to do,” Sayegh says.
In the end, this police department may be too broken to fix without sustained outside intervention to change its culture and training. Platkin will have to consider whether the state should intervene, and one hopes the Department of Justice is considering federal intervention, which helped both the State Police and the Newark City Police make significant progress.
Seabrooks, as it happens, was a courageous critic of the Paterson police. After he was shot in the leg during a drive-by shooting in March of 2021, he said police took him from his hospital bed after just six hours, still bleeding and barefoot in his hospital gown, to question him at headquarters. They took his car keys, his phone and his clothes, he said, and returned them only after he visited daily for a week and filed an internal affairs complaint. He was never charged, and police declined to comment on his account.
“I’m Black and they see me as they see every other Black human being,” Seabrooks told me six months after that shooting.
This is a police department that has burned the trust of its community to the ground. It’s past time for a housecleaning, and that will only happen if the politicians decide to brave expected opposition from the police unions and insist on it.
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