Cries for civilian review boards grow louder in N.J. following Najee Seabrooks’ killing

A bill allowing cities to create civilian review boards with subpoena power has stalled in the Legislature.

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Protesters rally outside the Paterson Police Department on March 10 over the killing of Najee Seabrooks.

Protesters rally outside the Paterson Police Department on March 10 over the killing of Najee Seabrooks. (Tennyson Donyéa/WHYY)

Dozens of residents packed into Paterson’s cramped City Council chambers on March 14 for a supercharged meeting where officials capped attendance, citing safety concerns.

Transparency over policing and city affairs was unofficially on the agenda as the City Council voted down a motion to broadcast its workshop meetings on television and YouTube and as members of the public renewed calls for the city to institute a civilian review board to investigate the local police department.

Half an hour into the heated affair, a peeved Council President Shahin Khalique stormed out of the chambers, visibly irked by a lack of decorum from brazen council members insisting that leaders be more accountable to Black residents, who turned out en masse days after the death of Paterson activist Najee Seabrooks.

Two days later, the New Jersey attorney general’s office released police body camera footage of the March 3 shooting that killed Seabrooks.

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To some, the footage and accompanying statements released by the attorney general’s office further validated a desire by people in marginalized communities to establish civilian review boards with subpoena power. The decades-long crusade continues to face significant hurdles.

After the New Jersey Supreme Court struck down subpoena power for Newark’s upstart civilian review board in 2020, amid a backdrop of political unrest following the murder of George Floyd, some state lawmakers seized the issue.

“Without subpoena power, [civilian complaint review boards] are actually moot,” Assemblywoman Angela McKnight, D-Hudson, said.

McKnight, moved by Floyd’s death, introduced legislation allowing municipalities to create civilian review boards with subpoena power, appropriating $800,000 to the cause.

Politicians and advocates asserted that the measure has stalled in both houses of the Legislature due to pushback from statewide police unions.

“I think if there’s limitations set on subpoena powers, then maybe we have a conversation about that,” Wayne Blanchard, president of the State Troopers Fraternal Association, told NJ Monitor in Jan. 2022.

Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly, D-Passaic, is in favor of the measure and implied that there’s skepticism among lawmakers from both parties.

“I know at one point, we were going to post it, and unofficially, we didn’t have enough votes for it,” Wimberly said. “That means that not only did we not have enough votes across the aisle, we didn’t have enough on our side to get it done.”

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Wimberly suggested that some lawmakers fear that supporting the bill would hurt their chances at re-election.

“I think we have to be very aggressive,” Wimberly said. “We also have to look at the leadership that we are electing. You can’t be anti-government and want a civilian review board. Many of these grassroots organizations that are out here need to get out and vote, they need to run for office. They need to be active and not just for a Najee Seabrooks situation. They have to be ongoing.”

Zellie Thomas, an abolitionist and an organizer with Black Lives Matter Paterson, said civilian review boards are crucial to repairing communities harmed by systemic injustices.

He also argued that elected officials must reimagine how municipalities respond to mental health crises by shifting from a militarized police response to using health care professionals.

“It is the lawmakers who empower the police to continue to brutalize and harm us,” Thomas said.

Civilian review boards aren’t a novel concept.

Modern civilian review board initiatives date back to the early-to-mid 1900s, according to the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement.

NACOLE claimed there are about 90 civilian review boards in the U.S. and Canada.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which has supported civilian review boards since the 1960s, said most existing review boards don’t have the teeth advocates have called for.

Alexander Shalom, senior supervising attorney for the ACLU-NJ, said fully functioning civilian review boards must have “subpoena power, proper funding, the ability to impose meaningful discipline, and due process protections for police officers.”

“There are no examples of systems that work as we want them to,” Shalom said.

Shalom also derided state lawmakers for a lack of movement on recent legislation.

“Accountability is messy, and the Legislature hasn’t had the appetite for it,” Shalom said.

The ACLU-NJ was critical of the attorney general’s press statement following the release of the bodycam footage of Seabrook’s killing. The statement asserted that police fired multiple rounds of non-lethal bullets at Seabrooks before he “lunged” at officers with a knife in hand. It’s difficult to make out exactly what happened at that point in the video. Police gear obstructs the view during much of the encounter.

“When the independent prosecutor law was passed, it gave us confidence that the Office of the Attorney General would serve as an independent entity to investigate and present police-involved shootings to grand juries so they may serve as the conscience of the community. Statements that use definitive language to describe disputed events involving lethal force — for example, using ‘lunge’ to describe the last movements of Mr. Seabrooks — undermine the purpose of the law by swaying the narrative, undercut the role of grand juries, and diminish public confidence in the independence of the process,” ACLU-NJ Legal Director Jeanne LoCicero said in a statement Friday.

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy has heralded Arrive Together, a pilot program in some jurisdictions that pairs mental health professionals with cops, as a progressive step towards better outcomes during crisis calls. In February, the second-term Democrat announced that his budget proposal included funding to expand the program.

Tracey Syphax, an advocate with Salvation and Social Justice, questioned whether police should be involved altogether.

“I don’t think we need to ride with the police,” Syphax said during a community discussion about Seabrooks’ death. “I believe we need to have a response made up of formerly impacted individuals, those that are from the communities of Paterson. Let us be the response.”

The attorney general’s office said it continues to investigate Seabrooks’ killing.

WHYY News reached out to the New Jersey State Troopers Fraternal Association, the New Jersey State Association of Chiefs of Police, and the New Jersey Fraternal Order of Police for comment but did not receive a response.

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