‘Our system failed Najee’: Advocates renew calls for mental health support in wake of N.J. police killing

The 31-year-old Paterson violence intervention advocate was experiencing a mental health episode during a fatal encounter with police on March 3.

Najee Seabrooks

Najee Seabrooks. (Courtesy of Paterson Healing Collective)

Calls for a non-police response to mental health crises have amplified following the release of police body camera footage depicting the killing of Najee Seabrooks.

“Individuals and families of individuals who call 911 for help in their most vulnerable hour should receive support, not violence.” Black Lives Matter Paterson said in a statement Friday morning.

The 31-year old Paterson violence intervention advocate was experiencing a mental health emergency, when police arrived at his Mill Street apartment on March 3. Seabrooks made the call to police himself, according to 911 recordings, apparently afraid that he was in danger.

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By the time police arrived on scene, Seabrooks had locked himself in a bathroom. Family members told officers Seabrooks was hallucinating and behaving erratically, according to a statement from the Attorney General’s office.

Throughout the footage released Thursday afternoon, police are seen negotiating with Seabrooks, with guns drawn and pointed at him — a detail that criminal justice advocates have scrutinized.

“What outcome should we expect when someone in crisis is met with police armed for war with their guns drawn?” said Nicole Rodriguez, president of the New Jersey Policy Perspective. “Our system failed Najee, just as it continues to fail our Black and brown neighbors who put their lives in jeopardy when they call 911 for help. State and local lawmakers must act with urgency so mental health crises are met with trained professionals, not armed police, and that people are connected to the care they need.”

At times Seabrooks can be heard both complying with police and threatening to harm himself and officers. Seabrooks was wielding a knife at times during the encounter.

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Authorities said police fired multiple rounds of rubber 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.

Seabrooks was a member of violence intervention group, Paterson Healing Collective, a hospital-based program specializing in crisis intervention. Members of the Collective said they were denied the opportunity to help de-escalate the situation.

Since Seabrooks’ death, his family and friends have called on the state to overhaul the way it handles mental health crises by shifting from a militarized police response to  mental health care professionals.

“No one denies Najee had a knife. But he also had a mental health crisis. There were steps and resources ignored to keep Najee alive,” said Zellie Thomas, leader of Black Lives Matter Paterson in a Twitter post. “Unless we change how we address people in mental health crises, people will continue to be killed instead of being helped.”

BLM Paterson Leader Zellie Thomas speaks to the crowd on Friday, March 10, 2023. (Tennyson Donyéa/WHYY)

Groups like the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice and the ACLU-NJ have called on the U.S. Department of Justice to launch a comprehensive investigation into the Paterson Police Department after state “Use of Force” data revealed one of the officers involved in Seabrooks’ death used force 15 times between October 2020 and December 2022. 

“Paterson Police Department must be held accountable on the local, state, and federal levels. At the same time, we must get out of our collective psyches that law enforcement is the right response for every disturbance. Until we boldly rethink how we interact with members of our community — especially Black men — this cycle of violence will continue,” the institute said in a statement following the release of the footage.

Protesters rally outside the Paterson Police Department on March 10, 2023. (Tennyson Donyéa/WHYY)

Seabrooks’ death has spurred protests in Paterson and calls for reform across New Jersey.

The Attorney General’s office said it met with Seabrooks’ family to review the footage. The office said it continues to investigate.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, call or text the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988. The hotline is staffed 24/7 by trained counselors who can offer free, confidential support. Spanish speakers can call 1-888-628-9454. People who are deaf or hard of hearing can call 1-800-799-4889.

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