They called him the “neighborhood hero and healer.”
Najee Seabrooks was “a pillar in the community” who built bridges between quarreling kids, rival gang members and victims of gun violence in a city that has seen its share before his own life was cut short at 31, family and friends said at a memorial Saturday.
Police shot and killed Seabrooks after five hours of tense negotiations as he was in the grips of an apparent mental health episode, harming himself with knives and calling 911 multiple times.
Hundreds gathered at the Christian Fellowship Center in Paterson, a line snaking in rows as soft gospel played. Seabrooks lay in an open casket, wearing a black suit and a pair of black and white Vans sneakers, his favorite shoes.
“By the number of people here today, we recognize that he was loved,” the Rev. Sarah Anthony said.
Seabrooks’ work for the Paterson Healing Collective, a local nonprofit, drew him to the city’s most vulnerable people, as well as those most likely to commit violence. It also connected him to those with influence, from local activists to members of the City Council and the head of a regional hospital, who said his death should spur reform.
The March 3 incident has renewed urgency in conversations over how emergency responders handle people in the throes of a mental health crisis, including what is the best way for police to respond to such calls.
In an obituary, his family recalled his positivity and “infectious smile.”
Born and raised in Paterson, Seabrooks was a championship basketball player for Eastside High School. He got an associate’s degree from Ventura College in California but returned home to Paterson where, after surviving a drive-by shooting, he began work as a “high-risk intervention specialist,” handling some of the nonprofit’s most complicated cases.
Outside of work, his tastes tended toward the simpler pleasures. Video games and pizza. Coaching his little brother, Sutan, in basketball. Ice cream in the park with his 4-year-old daughter, Sofia.
“He loved her more than anything and would do all he could to make sure she was taken care of,” his family wrote.
His mother, Melissa Carter, cried out while she viewed his body one last time, as roses were placed inside her son’s casket.
“Why?” she screamed as she returned to her seat.
“This shouldn’t have happened,” someone else shouted.
His casket was pulled from the funeral home in a glass carriage led by two white horses. The words “Justice for Najee” were etched on the side.
Teddie Martinez was Seabrooks’ mentor at the Paterson Healing Collective, but said it was he who learned “so much about life” from the younger Seabrooks, even turning him into a convert for Vans sneakers.
“As long as I have breath in me, Najee’s name will not go in vain,” he said.
Martinez said he was denied access to Seabrooks during the police standoff despite his own work as a violence interventionist. His group has argued Seabrooks might have survived the ordeal if he had gotten psychiatric care when he needed it, and Martinez asked those assembled to “not drop the ball on this” and to continue to demand answers in his memory.
State Attorney General Matthew Platkin’s office is investigating Seabrooks’ killing as required by state law. The office on Thursday released hours of body camera footage showing police negotiating with Seabrooks for several hours before shooting him as he leapt from a bathroom.
The office said Seabrooks “came out of the bathroom and lunged toward the officers with a knife in his hand.”
At his memorial Saturday, Lisa Muhammad, who read a tribute, said Seabrooks’ death, like his life, should inspire others.
“That has to be the last Black man they kill,” she said.
Editor’s Note: If you’re facing a mental health disorder, you’re not alone. Mental health disorders affect people from all areas of life and all ages, but are treatable. Call Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s national helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357) for treatment referral and information.
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