PATERSON, N.J. — More than four days after Najee Seabrooks was shot and killed by Paterson police during a mental health crisis, his loved ones expressed outrage at a vigil Tuesday evening in Seabrooks’s hometown of Paterson, N.J. In a tragic twist of irony, the 31-year-old father of a little girl worked as a violence intervention activist to keep the most at-risk youth in his community safe, but became a victim of violence himself.
“He did everything he could to serve his people,” Seabrooks’s best friend, Terrance Drakeford, said at the event, held outside the offices of the Paterson Healing Collective (PHC), a group dedicated to providing support for survivors of violence, where the two worked together.
Upwards of 300 members of the community and constituents from anti-violence groups statewide gathered as temperatures dropped to bone-chilling levels. Following the prayer vigil, the group marched two blocks down the street to City Hall to hold a second demonstration on the steps outside where city leaders were meeting to discuss how the city would move forward.
There was anger, frustration and passion emanating from attendees as speeches intertwined with chants of “Justice for Najee,” “No justice, no peace” and “Stop police brutality in the Black community.”
“We want justice,” Drakeford said. “We want whatever that comes with this.”
The shooting last Friday followed a standoff between Seabrooks and police that lasted more than four hours, according to Paterson Press. Police had responded to calls of a mentally disturbed person in his home, and when they arrived at the scene Seabrooks had allegedly barricaded himself inside the apartment. After prolonged negotiations, police claim, Seabrooks let officers into his home and then charged at them with a knife. According to the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office, two officers fired their weapons at Seabrooks, striking him. He was later pronounced dead at St. Joseph’s Regional Medical Center in Paterson.
On Wednesday, the attorney general’s office released the names of the officers who deployed their weapons: Anzore Tsay and Jose Hernandez. Both were members of the emergency response team.
Officials say they could not deploy their Tasers because Seabrooks had broken pipes in the apartment and started a small fire that left significant amounts of water on the floor, making the use of the electrical device too dangerous.
“The police was here for hours trying to calm him down and bring him out of the apartment, but he decided to turn the apartment on fire,” Councilman Luiz Velez told NBC New York. Paterson police did not respond to several requests for comment from Yahoo News.
But those who knew Seabrooks best are skeptical of the police account of what happened and are urging the immediate release of body camera recordings of the incident so the public can see for themselves what took place.
“We want full transparency, the names of all the officers released and body camera footage released,” Seabrooks’s brother Eli Carter said Tuesday.
Seabrooks had contacted members of the PHC during his crisis, but police refused to let them intervene. Law enforcement said they could not allow civilians to involve themselves in crisis prevention and shot Seabrooks only after he wielded a knife and moved toward the officers. Officials told Paterson Press that one of Seabrooks’s relatives who works as a police officer in another city was brought to the scene to try to deescalate the situation.
“I keep playing Friday over and over in my head,” Liza Chowdhury, project director of the PHC, said Tuesday, fighting back tears. “Police refused to let us intervene despite helping more than 250 residents throughout this city. I pleaded with them, and I know if they let us intervene he would still be alive. ... He called us to help.”
Teddie Martinez, violence interventions coordinator for the PHC, said he also pleaded with police to allow him to help on Friday, but to no avail.
“We train the officers [on deescalation tactics], and how ironic they didn’t let us help,” Martinez said. “All I said was, 'Let me see his face and I’ll go.' They wanted to make it their show.”
The state attorney general’s office is currently investigating the shooting.
“Any loss of life is a tragedy, and we express our deepest condolences to the family, loved ones and friends, and colleagues of the decedent,” Dan Prochilo, a spokesperson for the attorney general’s office, told Yahoo News. “Our office is committed to thoroughly, fairly and independently investigating fatal police encounters.”
Prochilo added that the office will make all information available, including video, when the investigation is complete.
Paterson Mayor André Sayegh has been quiet since Friday’s shooting, according to local residents. On Saturday he issued his only statement on the incident, welcoming the attorney general’s review and saying that “prayers and condolences are with Mr. Seabrook’s [sic] family, friends and our impacted community.” When contacted by Yahoo News, his office shared the same statement, adding that it had “no further comment at this time.”
During one of the speeches Tuesday night, an attendee shouted, “Where is the mayor? He knocked on my door to vote for him during election time, but I don’t see him here!”
Community distrust in Paterson leadership
For many critics in the community already on edge following Seabrooks’s killing, each passing day with no additional information only adds to the angst and frustration.
“In Memphis, they fired the cops within two weeks,” Larry Hamm, chairman of the People’s Organization for Progress, a social justice advocacy group, said, referencing Tyre Nichols, the 29-year-old Black man fatally beaten by Memphis police following a traffic stop in January. “If they had let the Paterson Healing Collective intervene, he would be alive today.”
“How many Black men need to be killed before they take us seriously?” Councilman Michael Jackson said before entering a City Council meeting where only 20 residents were allowed inside.
The Black Lives Matter chapter in Paterson has presented a list of demands for the city, which include the immediate release of police body camera footage of the incident and placing the officers involved in the shooting on administrative leave. The group, spearheaded by leader Zellie Thomas, also demands a restructuring of the city’s police department that would include creating a civilian complaint review board to investigate allegations of police wrongdoing in addition to investing more money in community groups that give Paterson residents positive outlets.
“We have to open up people’s eyes that police officers are not the only solution to crises,” Thomas told Yahoo News, noting that conversations about actual change come to a halt once the conversation about the reallocation of police funding comes up. The Paterson Police Department represents more than 16% of the city’s budget, receiving more than $43 million last year, which is more than double the percentage that New York City allocates to its police department.
History of Paterson police violence
Seabrooks’s death isn’t the first case in which Paterson police have come under scrutiny for their handling of people having a mental health crisis. In January 2019, 27-year-old Jameek Lowery died after consuming illegal drugs and expressing feelings of “paranoia” before being repeatedly struck by police officers trying to restrain him on an ambulance gurney. A lawsuit filed by Lowery’s family cites at least three other instances — two of them fatal — since 2012 in which Paterson police shot individuals experiencing mental health episodes. There was also the death of 25-year-old Thelonious McKnight, who was killed in late 2021 while fleeing police.
Hamm believes that the issue of race cannot be ignored. Paterson has just over 157,000 residents, made up of 87% Black and Hispanic residents and 8% white residents, according to the latest census data. Meanwhile, 1 in 3 Paterson officers are white, while about 62% are Black or Hispanic.
“There is a different way that they treat Black people in distress from white people in distress,” Hamm said.
Michael Mitchell, an assistant professor of African American studies and criminology at the College of New Jersey, told Yahoo News that the need for transparency is urgent.
“It is no secret that the Paterson Police Department is inundated in a legitimacy crisis due to the city’s toxic cop culture,” he said in an email, pointing to a recent Paterson police corruption case. “Therefore, the urgency in releasing publicly the body worn camera footage from the police emergency responders involved cannot be overstated. A time lag in transparency only exacerbates community distrust in the institution publicly funded to protect and serve them.”
Police intervention with mental health crises under scrutiny
While many mental health advocates believe that officers need additional training to deal with individuals experiencing mental health crises, other advocates say police should not be involved at all unless the person is armed and an immediate threat to others. They say police are simply unqualified to handle the nuances of such situations.
In New Jersey, Mitchell notes, the pilot program ARRIVE Together, which pairs police with mental health professionals during crisis calls, is showing promise, and Gov. Phil Murphy recently announced a $10 million investment in expanding the program statewide.
“It is critical that police agencies and officers understand and operate under the recognition that you cannot respond to every person the same,” Mitchell said. “There can be no ‘one size fits all’ approach to policing, especially when dealing with individuals experiencing a mental health crisis.”
Last year a three-digit National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number, 988, officially launched, allowing anyone witnessing or experiencing a mental health crisis to call, text or chat to talk to someone. But a Yahoo News report found that many states did not have the resources to adequately staff and support the line.
Over the last few years, several cities, including New York, Chicago and Denver, have launched programs that replace police response with mental health emergency responders and have seen success. But critics argue that the movement exists in far too few places and is expanding far too slowly.
In Paterson, progress on the implementation of a task force has been inconsistent at best.
Mayor Sayegh introduced a citizens’ deescalation task force in December 2021, but, according to Thomas, the group has never met and has not rolled out a single new regulation.
“This task force was supposed to be able to research best practices and best policies for officers to be equipped with deescalation practices and policies, and over a year later, that deescalation task force still has not met,” Thomas said. “What if that task force had met and was already researching some of the things that we are proposing now and implemented it? It could have saved his life.”
According to those who knew him best, Seabrooks will be remembered by the community as someone who would do anything for those in need. His family started a GoFundMe to cover funeral expenses and create a trust fund for his daughter.
His mother, Melissa Carter, told the CBS News local affiliate in New York that her son loved his city so much that he gave of himself in spite of his own personal circumstances.
“He planned toy giveaways, he donated, he had homeless drives,” Carter said. “All he wanted to do was help the community.”
Cover thumbnail photo: Stephen Maturen/Getty Images