More than a week after the death of Najee Seabrooks, the 31-year-old violence interventionist fatally shot by Paterson police during a mental health crisis, dozens of grassroots advocacy groups across the state are urging the Justice Department to launch their own investigation into the Paterson Police Department (PPD), citing years of “unlawful and unconstitutional conduct.”
In a joint letter sent to the Justice Department on Monday by the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice (NJISJ) and 47 other groups statewide, advocates cited at least two dozen news reports and past PPD audits in the last decade, along with Seabrook’s death, as reasons for the probe.
“Paterson PD is a department desperately in need of a culture shift — a shift away from one that inflicts unconstitutional misconduct to one that truly protects all of Paterson,” Yannick Wood, director of criminal justice reform at NJISJ and one of the letter’s authors, told Yahoo News in an email.
The PPD’s lack of oversight and failure to govern itself in the last decade, the letter states, illustrates a pattern that “deprives the residents of Paterson of their civil rights.”
“The PPD incidents discussed above establish a pattern or practice that PPD engages in conduct that deprives the public of rights, privileges or immunities secured or protected by the Constitution or laws of the United States,” the letter says. “DOJ must intervene to bring about the kind of accountability that Mr. Seabrooks and his family, and others like them, deserve — along with the people of Paterson.”
This latest move comes as numerous demonstrations throughout the city of Paterson have intensified in the last week, stemming from outrage over the lack of transparency in the March 3 killing of Seabrooks, who worked with the Paterson Healing Collective (PHC), a group dedicated to providing support for survivors of violence. Since his death, no body camera footage has been released from the encounter and no officer has been publicly disciplined or charged.
The DOJ did not respond to Yahoo News’ request for comment.
The shooting followed a four-hour standoff between Seabrooks and police, according to the 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 that Seabrooks let officers into his home and 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.
Officials said 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.
But those who knew Seabrooks are skeptical of the police department’s account, demanding the immediate release of body camera recordings of the incident so the public can see what took place.
“They didn’t have to shoot him,” Gladys Reed, a family friend of Seabrooks, told Newark-based public radio station WBGO over the weekend at a demonstration. “You need to hear somebody’s voice that they know, and they can calm them down, so it won’t have to get to this situation.”
Seabrooks had contacted members of the PHC during his crisis via text, saying “I want to hear one of y’all’s voice ... before they try to kill me,” according to the New York Times. But police officers refused to let them intervene.
Teddie Martinez, the violence intervention coordinator for the PHC, said at a rally for Seabrooks this month that officers at the scene denied his offers of assistance.
“I begged to assist,” Martinez said. “They wanted to make it their show.”
The state attorney general’s office is now investigating the shooting and said that they’re committed to conducting a fair and thorough investigation.
“New Jersey has the most transparent system of any state, and our office has made a commitment in all fatal police encounters to make available information, including video, as promptly as possible when the investigation is substantially complete,” Daniel Prochilo, a spokesperson for the Attorney General’s Office, told Yahoo News. “While every effort is made to move these cases as quickly as practicable, it is just as critical that we conduct a thorough and complete investigation.”
A history of federal government intervention
If a Justice Department probe were to happen, this wouldn’t be the first time in recent history that a New Jersey city was taken over by the federal government.
In 2014, the Newark Police Department was placed under court-ordered federal monitor after a Justice Department investigation uncovered civil rights abuses and misconduct by Newark officers. Two years later the department was overhauled by a consent decree, which instituted a number of reforms, including training on stops, searches and arrests, as well as bias-free policing. The department remains under the decree through at least this summer. In an apparent sign of progress, no officer from the department fired a single bullet in 2020.
But many residents in Paterson want more immediate action, starting with local officials, which, they say, thus far has been minimal.
Paterson Mayor André Sayegh has given only a handful of statements in the 10 days since Seabrook’s killing, consistently reiterating his commitment to both accountability and transparency.
“My administration has reached out to the Attorney General's Office several times this week demanding the release of the body camera footage related to the police encounter with Najee,” Sayegh said last Friday in a Facebook post. “I am once again calling on the Attorney General to release the footage and to move expeditiously to provide all the details of what happened last Friday.”
In the letter to the Justice Department, authors cited the DOJ’s two-year investigation into the Louisville Police Department that revealed “unacceptable and heartbreaking” actions by the department as a model for what they hope takes place with the PPD.
Wood called the challenges to Louisville PD, which included routine excessive force, unlawful stops and searches and discrimination against Black residents, “unsurprisingly similar to what we recognize in Paterson’s police.”
An investigation into Paterson policing, he added, would likely bring the kind of structural change many feel is necessary.
“At the end of the DOJ investigation, we would like to see recommendations for structural change to the department, independent oversight of the department through civilian review boards and we'd like to see Paterson PD positively engage with a consent decree process that implements these recommendations,” Wood said.
Paterson police violence
Seabrooks’s death also isn’t the first instance in which Paterson police have come under scrutiny for their handling of citizens experiencing 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 occasions since 2012 in which Paterson police shot individuals experiencing mental health episodes, killing two of them. There was also the death of 25-year-old Thelonious McKnight, who was killed in late 2021 while fleeing police.
The letter to the DOJ cited 12 examples of excessive force by PPD since 2012; the letter also stated that one of the officers who shot Seabrooks used excessive force 15 times between October 2020 and December 2022.
It also highlighted a sweeping corruption investigation in which six former Paterson officers were convicted over the last five years for their roles in illegally stopping, searching and taking money from residents.
If swift changes had been put in place shortly after these systemic issues, Wood believes Seabrooks would still be alive.
“[The] DOJ urged Louisville to expand its usage of alternative and non-police behavioral health responses for people in crisis,” he said. “Had Paterson done the same, Najee Seabrooks would likely still be alive today.”
Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: family handout (2)