Cops kill Black violence intervention activist during mental health crisis

The shooting on Friday came amid a standoff that lasted more than four hours between 31-year-old Najee Seabrooks and police in Paterson, New Jersey.

Hundreds of locals congregated in Paterson, New Jersey on Tuesday to demand justice for Najee Seabrooks, 31, a Black violence intervention activist killed by police Friday during a mental health crisis.

The Paterson Healing Collective, an organization that supports victims of violence, hosted the gathering in front of its offices. From there, community members and supporters of anti-violence organizations marched two blocks to City Hall, where they staged a second demonstration on the steps to discuss how to move forward, according to Yahoo News.

Frustration, rage and other emotions were evident coming from the crowd Tuesday as speeches were interspersed with chants of “Stop police brutality in the Black community,” “No justice, no peace” and “Justice for Najee.”

Najee Seabrooks - New Jersey mental health crisis
Najee Seabrooks, 31, a violence intervention activist and father of a little girl, was killed on March 3 following a more than four-hour standoff with Paterson, New Jersey police. (Photo: Screenshot/ News)

“I keep playing Friday over and over in my head,” said PHC project director Liza Chowdhury, Yahoo News reported. “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.”

The shooting Friday came amid a standoff that lasted more than four hours between Seabrooks and police. Authorities, responding to calls of a mentally distressed person in his home, arrived at the scene and found Seabrooks barricaded inside the apartment, according to the Patterson Press.

Police officials told the Patterson Press that Seabrooks let police into his house after lengthy negotiations,c then charged at them with a knife. The New Jersey Attorney General’s Office claims that gunfire from two police agents – identified Wednesday as emergency team members Anzore Tsay and Jose Hernandez – hit Seabroooks, who was later pronounced dead at St. Joseph’s Regional Medical Center.

The activist, also the father of a little girl, reportedly called members of the PHC during his plight, but Paterson Police would not allow them to help. Law enforcement claimed they could not permit citizens to participate in crisis prevention, and said they only shot Seabrooks after he advanced toward them with a knife. According to officials, one of Seabrooks’ relatives, a police officer in another city, was called to the site to defuse the situation.

“We train the officers [on de-escalation tactics], and how ironic they didn’t let us help,” said PHC violence interventions coordinator Teddie Martinez, according to Yahoo. “All I said was, ‘Let me see his face, and I’ll go.’ They wanted to make it their show.”

The police contend that they could not use their Tasers because Seabrooks had damaged the apartment’s plumbing and started a small fire, leaving a significant amount of water on the ground and risking their use.

However, Seabrooks’ loved ones and supporters doubt the police’s version of events. They’re calling for the immediate release of body camera footage so the public can see what happened.

Paterson’s Black Lives Matter chapter has also presented the city with a list of demands, including suspending the officers responsible for the shooting.

The group, led by leader Zellie Thomas, also calls for a restructuring of the city’s police force, including the establishment of a civilian complaint review board to look into accusations of police misconduct and increased funding for neighborhood organizations that provide Paterson residents with constructive outlets.

Thomas said it’s crucial to help people realize “officers are not the only solution to crises,” adding that discussions about actual change halt during mentions of reallocating police funding. More than 16 percent of the city’s budget — more than $43 million — was given to the Paterson Police Department just last year.

While many advocates for mental health care believe that officers need more training to deal with people going through those type of crises, others contend that police shouldn’t get involved unless the person is armed and posing an immediate danger to others. The handling of individuals going through a mental health crisis by Paterson Police has drawn criticism in at least four other cases besides Seabrooks’ death.

Larry Hamm, chairman of the social justice advocacy group People’s Organization for Progress, said race is a care issue people can’t overlook.

“There is a different way that they treat Black people in distress” compared to white people, he said, Yahoo reported.

According to the most recent census, slightly more than 157,000 people live in Paterson, 87 percent African American and Hispanic and 8 percent white. One-third of Paterson’s police personnel are white, compared to 62 percent who are Black or Hispanic.

Michael Mitchell, an assistant professor of criminology and African American studies at the College of New Jersey, emphasized the urgency of transparency.

Police agencies and officers must “understand and operate under the recognition that you cannot respond to every person the same,” noted Mitchell, Yahoo reported. “There can be no ‘one size fits all’ approach to policing, especially when dealing with individuals experiencing a mental health crisis.”

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