Najee Seabrooks New Jersey attorney general mental health cops
PATERSON — The New Jersey Attorney General’s Office called for improvements in law enforcement encounters…
PATERSON — The New Jersey Attorney General’s Office called for improvements in law enforcement encounters with people in mental health crisis in December 2020, almost 27 months before two Paterson police officers shot Najee Seabrooks.
But it remains unclear what changes — if any — were made because of that directive.
Attorney General Matthew Platkin’s staff has not responded to Paterson Press’ questions, which were sent through email last Friday morning. Meanwhile, the Passaic County Prosecutor’s Office said it has conducted meetings in response to the attorney general’s plan. But the Prosecutor’s Office said it would not release minutes of the meetings because the sessions were not “public.”
The attorney general at that time, Gurbir Grewal, issued a directive calling for the creation by county prosecutors of “working groups” composed of law enforcement and mental health professionals “to improve law enforcement interactions with special needs populations and those living with mental or behavioral health issues.”
The county groups were supposed to submit quarterly updates to a state committee overseeing the initiative.
“Building professional relationships between law enforcement and providers, as well as local social service organizations, is an important step in ensuring the multi-dimensional response necessary to reduce tragic and unnecessary law enforcement encounters,” said Grewal’s directive.
The directive talked about a “mental health toolbox” that law enforcement officers could use for encounters with people in mental health crisis, and then listed possibilities for improvement.
“Examples include the following: programs for mental health or social workers to respond to calls for service instead of law enforcement or along with law enforcement; diversionary programs in the criminal justice system; access to mental health and drug treatment screening and treatment options; county crisis screening services which include mobile outreach and accessibility; and links to follow-up resources for the issues that are identified through the screening,” Grewal wrote.
The state last year launched an ARRIVE Together pilot program that has police and mental health specialists responding in tandem to emergency cases in Cumberland and Union counties. Paterson has gotten a $600,000 grant for a similar program that is supposed to start later this year. It’s not clear whether those programs stem from Grewal’s 2020 directive on mental health.
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Advocates press Platkin, other officials
Platkin’s office has said Paterson police responded to a 911 call at Seabrooks’ home on the morning of March 3 because Seabrooks was “in distress” and “barricaded himself within a bathroom.”
Platkin has not released any other information about what may have caused Seabrooks’ “distress.”
The Attorney General’s Office has come under public criticism from elected officials and social justice advocates for waiting to release body-camera recordings of the incident. Paterson police officers also have privately questioned the state’s handling of the videos.
After multiple near-miss confrontations between protesters and police in Paterson last week, another rally was scheduled for Tuesday night at City Hall.
Paterson Press on Tuesday morning asked Gov. Phil Murphy’s staff about the governor’s thoughts regarding the release of the body-camera videos and other information in the case. Paterson Press also asked whether the governor’s office was taking any steps to prevent community tensions over Seabrooks’ shooting from escalating.
Tyler Jones, Murphy’s deputy press secretary, provided a two-sentence response.
“Governor Murphy signed a law requiring that the Attorney General independently investigate all police-involved deaths and present those findings to a grand jury,” Jones said. “The Attorney General’s Office has a well-established process for how these investigations are conducted and what information is publicly disclosed, and Governor Murphy fully respects the independence of that process.”
Meanwhile, Mayor Andre Sayegh’s administration on Tuesday told Paterson Press it needed 14 additional business days to respond to public document requests for the body-camera videos, 911 call recordings, police radio transmissions and written incident reports from the Seabrooks shooting.
Why didn’t police use a Taser?
In the immediate aftermath of Seabrooks’ death, high-ranking officials told Paterson Press that the police emergency response team could not use Tasers to subdue the disturbed young man because of water from broken pipes on the floor of his apartment as well as spilled alcohol. Those sources said Seabrooks had doused himself in alcohol.
The attorney general’s guidelines for use of Tasers, also known as conducted energy devices, say: “A conducted energy device shall not be used in, on, or immediately adjacent to a body of water in which the targeted person could fall during any stage of the application of the electrical current generated or transmitted by the device.”
Paterson Press on March 6 asked the Attorney General’s Office for a clarification of those guidelines, but state officials have not responded.
Brian Higgins, a former chief of the Bergen County police and an adjunct professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan, said the presence of water on Seabrooks’ floor would have required the emergency response team to make a tough judgment call on whether using Tasers was safe.
But Higgins — who said he has conducted training classes on the use of controlled energy devices — said if the officers knew Seabrooks had poured alcohol on himself, then they would have “a major concern” about firing their Tasers.
Higgins cited a January 2022 incident in Catskill, New York, in which a suspect burst into flames and died when police used a Taser on him after he had doused himself in hand sanitizer that contained alcohol. Higgins also mentioned an incident last May in Florida in which a man caught fire after police shot a Taser at him near spilled fuel at a gas station.
Higgins, who also served as public safety director in Bergen County, said he is familiar with Paterson’s police emergency response team.
“They are well-trained,” he said. “They are a good team.”
Higgins said one of the biggest questions he has about the Seabrooks shooting is what prompted the emergency responders to go inside the apartment after the initial standoff outside the building. The Attorney General’s Office has not disclosed what caused the police to go inside.
“If they waited two more hours,” Higgins said, “or if they waited four more hours, would they have had to shoot him?”
Joe Malinconico is editor of Paterson Press.
Email: [email protected]