by Sophie Nieto-Munoz and Dana DiFilippo, New Jersey Monitor
The police shooting of a Paterson man who was a member of a local anti-violence group has renewed calls for less police involvement in situations involving people exhibiting signs of mental illness.
New Jersey has made strides in this area, announcing in February that a pilot program pairing police officers with mental health experts would expand to almost every county in the next year. But policymakers must do more to protect the lives of the people they serve, reformers say.
“It’s clear that regular police units are not properly trained and equipped to deal with mental health crises,” said Lawrence Hamm, an activist who has fought for criminal justice reforms as chair of the People’s Organization for Progress.
“We’re just grieving now. Trying to pick up the pieces.”
– Liza Chowdhury, director of the Paterson Healing Collective
The Paterson shooting occurred on Friday, March 3, 2023. Authorities say 31-year-old Najee Seabrooks — a member of the Paterson Healing Collective’s violence intervention program — barricaded himself inside his apartment, starting a standoff with police that lasted more than four hours. Police arrived at the scene after they received a 911 call about a person in distress.
At about 12:30 p.m., officers Anzore Tsay and Jose Hernandez shot at Seabrooks, according to the state Attorney General’s Office, which investigates all killings by police. Seabrooks was pronounced dead at a nearby hospital.
Liza Chowdhury, director of the Paterson Healing Collective, said their team arrived on the scene after Seabrooks reached out to them in their work group chat. They identified themselves on scene and even showed police the texts from Seabrooks but were rebuffed by the authorities, Chowdhury said.
An official with Paterson’s police union said Seabrooks was wielding knives when officers shot him.
“Our team is trained in trauma-informed practices, like de-escalating and mediating and talking to them. We don’t have guns,” said Chowdhury. “We would’ve went in and asked Najee on that day, ‘What do you need? How can we get you to a hospital?’ He texted us for help, specifically for our help.”
‘Not enough is being done’
Nancy Wolff is a professor at Rutgers University Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy who has researched behavioral health services and criminal justice.
“There has been a loss of a man’s life because he was in a mental health crisis, and there was a mismanagement of the situation. It’s not the first time this has happened and it’s not likely to be the last time, which suggests not enough is being done,” Wolff said.
Wolff said the question here is whether communities are willing to invest in the types of specialized interventions that can prevent overreactions when police respond to mental health crises.
She said there are two types of intervention approaches. One she calls a “go it alone” approach, where officers are given mental health training to enhance their understanding of mental health issues and allow them to understand symptoms, triggers, how mental health manifests, and how to de-escalate situations. The other is a call-response intervention, where police officers partner with mental health experts to respond together as a team.
It’s more common to do the “go it alone” response, but there’s strong evidence showing they both work, with New York City, Seattle, and Chicago all using crisis response teams.
“The right thing could have been done. We certainly have the technologies for doing it, we have the skill set for doing it, and we have models that show they work. It’s a matter of setting this as a priority to respond effectively and humanely to the needs of people with mental health problems,” she said.
The state announced last month it will expand a state program that pairs plainclothes police officers with mental health screeners to 10 counties. It launched in Cumberland County, where officials said it completely eliminated the use of force when responding to mental health calls, and it expanded to parts of Union County last year. Passaic County is not included in the next expansion.
“They were being told to stand down, so it’s like: ‘OK, sometimes you want our help and then sometimes you don’t.’ It creates a very ambivalent sort of situation in terms of when they have the right to engage and when they don’t,” Williams said. “A new model has to be cultivated that sort of codifies the Paterson Healing Collective and other groups such as those to be a part of that process. Until we actually make it such that they can engage, then law enforcement is going to always be wishy-washy about how they go about using these organizations.”
Paterson Healing Collective is a violence intervention team founded in 2020 and staffed with community residents trained in mental health and high-risk intervention. The Passaic County organization is based at the local hospital, St. Joseph’s University Medical Center, which is less than two miles away from where Seabrooks was killed. Chowdhury said the group has helped over 250 gunshot victims since its founding and often responds to calls within the hospital.
The goal of Paterson Healing Collective was to be a part of the city’s crisis response team and a “complementary strategy” to public safety. Chowdhury said police officers have never reached out to them for a mental health response, but they’ve previously worked with residents who were hired by the collective.
“Even if police are called, you should use every resource at your disposal before you use lethal force. That does not mean in-house police resources — I’m talking about mental health experts, community-based resources that know the community and can help and could have made sure Najee was safe,” she said.
Hamm said he is “dumbfounded” by the reports that police would not allow Seabrook’s loved ones to intervene while he was barricaded inside the apartment.
“Even if it was a safety concern of not letting people in, they still have access to the same bullhorn they use at anti-violence rallies. They could have let them speak to him over some sort of amplified sound system, or over the telephone,” Hamm said.
Hamm said he can only speculate what would have happened if members of the Paterson Healing Collective could’ve responded, but strongly believes Seabrooks would be alive today if they had.
Najee Seabrooks was a known anti violence activist who called 911 while experiencing a mental health crisis.
— zellie (@zellieimani) March 11, 2023
Reevaluating police training
Beyond mental health, Seabrooks’ death shows — again — why legislators must act on several stalled police reform bills that would hold officers accountable for brutality, Williams said.
“A lot of the bills that could help to facilitate change on this are just sitting,” he said.
He called on policymakers to heighten the threshold for deadly force, as California did in 2019 when they prohibited the use of force except when necessary to preserve human life. Both officers involved in Seabrooks’ death had histories of uses of force; Hernandez reported using force 15 times between 2020 and 2022, and Tsay twice in that time period, according to data collected by the state Attorney General’s Office.
Still, even the accountability proposals in the legislative pipeline don’t specifically address one of the police actions that contributed to their fatal encounter with Seabrooks — their failure to de-escalate the situation, Williams said.
Williams also pointed to the common police practice of officers being trained to kill, rather than disable, when they do draw their guns.
“Unfortunately, the Supreme Court has ruled that officers, in moments when they feel their life is in danger, can use deadly force,” he said. “That’s absolutely part of the problem. At the moment, we train them within an us-versus-them militant framework, and under such a framework, unfortunately, citizens are not humans, they’re objects. They’re things to be controlled — and potentially even things to exterminate if police feel that their lives have been threatened.”
Chowdhury said she’d want people to know that Seabrooks cared deeply about his community, particularly its youth. He mentored kids in basketball, his favorite sport, and would often pick up kids hanging out in the streets and take them home.
“He was concerned about the betterment of his community, the Fourth Ward. He was just a young man that was trying to make a difference in his community, and it’s sad he’s taken from us,” she said. “We’re just grieving now. Trying to pick up the pieces.”
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