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Paterson killing shows our communities continue to be overpoliced and under-resourced

By Rev. Dr. Charles F. Boyer

Without transformational changes, Najee Seabrooks' name will not be the last on the lips of advocates and mourners demanding justice, the Rev. Dr. Charles F. Boyer writes.

On March 3, Najee Seabrooks, a high-risk interventionist with the Paterson Healing Collective, was shot and killed by Paterson police while experiencing his own mental health crisis.

While we may never know the source of the deep pain and distress that precipitated the events of that day, one thing is for certain, and three things are for sure.

First, Najee Seabrooks should be alive right now. Secondly, Paterson police had resources at their disposal to deescalate the situation that they opted not to utilize, and it was their recklessness, insidiousness, and ineptitude that resulted in the death of this young man. Third, without transformational changes involving the way in which we respond to mental health calls in our communities — particularly Black communities — Najee’s name will not be the last on the lips of advocates and mourners demanding justice.

Najee Seabrooks is but the latest name in a list of more than 500 people who have died during encounters with New Jersey police officers over the past two decades. According to NJ Advanced Media’s “Force Report,” a Black person in New Jersey is three times more likely to be subjected to force than a white person.

Residents in Paterson have long complained of the level of brutality demonstrated by police against Black and brown residents, brutality that has yielded countless reports, investigations, and civil suits costing millions of taxpayer dollars. Despite all of the evidence, heartache, and waste, the violent authoritarian, corrupt policing model in Paterson and other New Jersey cities has shown little sign of changing.

Less than a month before Najee’s life was taken, an unarmed 28-year-old Khalif Cooper was shot in the back and paralyzed by Paterson police, resulting in the Attorney General’s Office taking the unusual but appropriate step of charging the officer with aggravated assault and official misconduct.

Reimagining Justice co-founder Lisa Chowdhury (center) speaking in Paterson at a press conference to announce new initiatives to help stem gun violence on Jan. 27, 2022. (Danielle Richards for New Jersey Monitor)

Paterson is a city consisting of about 150,000 residents; the majority of those residents are Black and brown. You need only speak to a handful of the residents to get a sense of the department’s utterly diabolical dysfunction and the occupying presence that looms over those they are tasked to protect and serve. Their violence is well documented and consists of everything from robbery, harassment, beatings, and, yes, fatal shootings.

It is under this backdrop that Paterson Healing Collective was conceived. It was this acute understanding that for the most vulnerable in the city — those suffering from trauma and mental health issues — there would have to be an alternative response to crisis calls other than the punitive, carceral response that comes with police involvement.

Since 2020, Paterson Healing Collective has been that alternative response, aiding over 250 Paterson residents by offering direct response support and resources and by assisting the police department on calls as well as performing training. It is for this reason that Najee’s story is so tragic.

Najee was able to navigate some of the most challenging circumstances, situations, and individuals daily while armed only with expertise, emotional aptitude, and contextual understanding of the needs of those he served. He committed his life to recognizing and preserving the humanity of his people. That commitment was a shared commitment among his friends and colleagues at the Paterson Healing Collective, and when he needed them most, they were there. Their inability to assist Najee was not due to lack of want; rather, it was the result of direct obstruction from the Paterson police officers who were on the scene.

Why? Why were the cries of his friends and colleagues ignored that day? Why had this organization, known for its effectiveness and expertise, been denied access to someone clearly in need on that day? Why, despite having the resources and the trained professionals at their disposal, did Paterson police choose to implore lethal force?

While family, friends, and community members struggle to seek the answers to these questions and make sense of what amounts to a senseless tragedy, what has never been clearer is the need for community-led first response teams as an alternative to police for mental health crisis situations.

In cities like Paterson, Trenton, and Newark, the fear of police is not only real, but it is legitimate. Our communities continue to be overpoliced, over-surveilled, and under-resourced, causing further injury to and compromising the health and wellness of its residents. When people are at their most vulnerable, in the throes of a mental health crisis, community-led first responders like the Paterson Healing Collective, the Newark Community Street Team, and the Trenton Restorative Street Team — groups trained in de-escalation and possessing a holistic, restorative, and community-centered framework — are critical to not only the prevention and intervention of violence but our ability to sustain and truly heal our communities. The non-punitive and individually tailored support services that community-led first responders provide are invaluable and critical to the health and safety of our communities.

We continue to mourn alongside the Paterson community at the loss of their beloved Najee and the countless others that came before him throughout the state. While our hearts are broken, our will and commitment to justice endure. Our resolve is even stronger than before as we continue the fight for community-centered responses that have proven to be effective tools in violence interruption, as well as limiting the unnecessary and harmful interactions between the police and our communities. We continue this fight for Najee. We continue this fight because we must. We continue this fight because, for us, this is a matter of life or death.

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