A Fatal Police Shooting Prompts a Demand for Justice Department Inquiry

The morning he was shot dead, Najee Seabrooks had contacted two groups to report that he was suffering from a mental health crisis: the police and his friends at the Paterson Healing Collective, an anti-violence organization where he worked as a counselor.

“I want to hear one of y’all’s voice,” he wrote on March 3 to members of the Paterson, N.J., collective, according to text messages shared by Equal Justice USA, a Brooklyn-based anti-violence organization, which met with members of the group after the shooting.

“Before they try to kill me,” Mr. Seabrooks, 31, added. “I have a few minutes left.”

After a more than four-hour standoff that included efforts by the police to use nonlethal force, two Paterson officers fired their guns, striking Mr. Seabrooks, who died at a nearby hospital, according to the New Jersey attorney general’s office.

Members of the healing collective — a group funded in part by a federal anti-violence grant — said they were barred by the police from intervening as they waited for hours in the lobby of the multistory apartment building where the shooting occurred. Kevin J. Slavin, the president of St. Joseph’s University Medical Center, where Mr. Seabrooks died, said in a strongly worded statement that the police never contacted his team of trained mental health professionals either.

“We must ask the question: Why were we not called?” Mr. Slavin asked.

On Monday, a coalition of groups led by the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice formally requested a Justice Department inquiry into what it called “widespread unlawful and unconstitutional conduct” by the Paterson Police Department. An investigation by the office led by U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland would be the first step in a process that could lead to the imposition of a federal monitor to oversee the department.

“What’s needed is a transformation of the entire department — a total cultural shift,” said Ryan P. Haygood, a civil rights lawyer and president of the social justice institute.

The demands for an investigation come as New Jersey, like many other places, has begun to rethink its police response to mental health emergencies. The state recently announced the expansion of a program created by a former acting attorney general, Andrew J. Bruck, that teams up police officers with trained counselors to respond to calls of people in acute emotional distress.

Mr. Slavin said a similar co-responder model linking St. Joseph’s and the Paterson Police Department had been scheduled to start this spring. But St. Joseph’s already runs the county’s crisis intervention team, which could have been asked to intervene in the hours between Mr. Seabrooks’s 7:43 a.m. call to 911 and the 12:35 p.m. shooting, Mr. Slavin said. Mr. Seabrooks was alone in his brother’s apartment, officials said, and had locked himself in a bathroom.

About an hour after Mr. Seabrooks called the police for help, three members of a police crisis intervention team attempted to use “less lethal force” to subdue him, according to the attorney general’s office, which is investigating the death. The attorney general’s office did not elaborate on the methods used.

“We know that there were valuable community resources that could have helped Najee — yet they were not utilized,” Mr. Slavin said.

The Paterson Police Department has a troubled history.

In the past several years, six officers have been convicted of stealing cash and other items from residents who were searched illegally, in violation of federal civil rights laws.

Last month, the state’s attorney general took the unusual step of charging a Paterson police officer with aggravated assault and official misconduct after a shooting in June left a young man paralyzed. The man, Khalif Cooper, was shot in the back as he ran away from a police officer.

Over the past week, nearly 6,000 people have signed a petition demanding “a complete restructuring” of the Paterson Police Department, and there have been at least two large demonstrations related to Mr. Seabrooks’s death in the 158,000-resident city in northern New Jersey.

“Residents of Paterson have lived for years under a police department with a history of excessive force and other abuse, all felt disproportionately by Black and brown residents in one of the most diverse cities in the country,” states a letter sent Monday afternoon asking the Justice Department to begin an investigation.

Requests for comment from the city’s police director were not returned. The mayor, André Sayegh, said on Monday that his administration had repeatedly urged the state attorney general’s office to release footage from police body-worn cameras, as is required by law once an investigation into any fatal use of police force is “substantially complete.”

The mayor said last week that since taking office in 2018 he had made sure that every Paterson police officer was outfitted with a body-worn camera “because of the need for accountability, transparency and the truth.”

“We want the truth and that’s why I am asking for the immediate release of the body camera footage of this tragic incident,” he wrote on Facebook.

On Monday, Mr. Sayegh, in a text message, reiterated that position, urging the attorney general’s office to “move expeditiously to provide all of the details of what happened.”

Last week, the attorney general’s office identified the two officers who fired their weapons as Anzore Tsay and Jose Hernandez, both of whom are members of the department’s Emergency Response Team, but said that no additional information would be released as the investigation was “ongoing.”

The letter sent Monday to Mr. Garland referred to a news report that cited unnamed city officials and said the police fired their weapons after Mr. Seabrooks approached them holding multiple knives.

Mr. Seabrooks, who had a daughter, had worked for several years as a member of the Paterson Healing Collective, which provides support for survivors of violence and intervenes with community members to “restore peace and avoid arrest and incarceration.”

Last fall, when a violence-prevention team from Louisiana visited New Jersey, Mr. Seabrooks, who lived in Paterson, led a walking tour of the city, according to William G. Simpson II, a Newark resident who is the director of violence reduction initiatives at Equal Justice USA.

Three weeks ago, after a 14-year-old Paterson boy was stabbed to death after school, it was Mr. Seabrooks who was assigned to talk to his traumatized classmates.

Mr. Simpson said the decision by the police to block the people who knew Mr. Seabrooks best from trying to help the police was a tragic error.

“This is their job,” he said. “This is what they’ve been trained to do. In the moment when they should have been most useful, they weren’t allowed to be engaged at all.”

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