PATERSON — Three days after the state takeover of the Paterson Police Department, the first planning meeting was held Thursday morning for a program designed to send mental health professionals with city cops to crisis scenes.
Paterson secured a $550,000 U.S. Department of Justice grant for the so-called “Connect and Protect” initiative early last fall, and city officials spent several months ironing out a preliminary agreement on the use of the funding.
During most of that time, the impending program drew little attention.
But all that changed after the fatal police shooting of Najee Seabrooks. The 31-year-old violence intervention specialist was going through a mental health crisis and wielding knives when he was killed on March 3 after an almost five-hour standoff with Paterson cops at an apartment bathroom.
Since Seabrooks’ death, activists and officials have demanded sweeping changes in the way the Paterson Police Department handles 911 calls involving people with mental problems. Critics say cops in riot gear may end up escalating such situations, rather than resolving them.
In announcing the police takeover on Monday, New Jersey Attorney General Matthew Platkin promised to bring to Paterson a state-funded ARRIVE Together program that teams mental health screeners with police officers on 911 calls involving people going through emotional crises.
Officials in the Attorney General’s Office subsequently told Paterson Press that the ARRIVE Together initiative may eventually merge with the Connect and Protect program, since the two initiatives would be similar.
Not everyone likes the plan. Some Paterson social justice activists argue that mental health specialists should respond alone to 911 calls involving people experiencing emotional disturbances.
“We do not need police and mental health professionals at the same time,” said Paterson Black Lives Matter leader Zellie Thomas.
Liza Chowdhury, director of the Paterson Healing Collective organization, where Seabrooks worked, said she prefers having a program under which mental health professionals lead the response on such 911 calls.
“A civilian, unarmed, trained mental health crisis team should always lead mental health calls,” Chowdhury said. “Police can’t be the lead or co-lead in these cases. They are trained in using force when they feel threatened, not patience and mental health therapeutic practices.”
Attorney general assumes control:What will state’s Police Department takeover mean for Paterson?
Earlier:New allegations of police excessive force are under review in Paterson
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Partnership with St. Joseph’s
The Paterson Police Department is partnering with St. Joseph’s University Medical Center on the Connect and Protect initiative. Officials at the city and hospital were not willing this week to say exactly when the program would start. They pointed out that the federal grant calls for a six-month planning period, which essentially started with Thursday’s meeting of representatives from the Police Department and the hospital.
“The intent is for both the police and the mental health professional to work together using both of their skill sets to bring the crisis to a safe and appropriate resolution and to get the client the best assistance to avoid future incidents,” Mayor Andre Sayegh’s administration said in response to written questions about the program. “Police and [mental health] professionals may exercise their respective authority over different aspects of the incident.”
Part of the planning effort will entail setting up policies for handling certain types of calls, such as when someone in an emotional crisis has a weapon, officials said.
Officials noted that the federal grant wouldn’t provide enough funding for around-the-clock response by the Connect and Protect teams. During planning, the police and the hospital will go through data on 911 calls involving people with emotional disturbances to try to identify peak times for such crises, and will schedule the teams to work during those hours, officials said.
It’s possible, officials said, that funding from the attorney general’s ARRIVE Together program could expand the times when the crisis teams would be available.
As part of the program, St. Joseph’s would hire two full-time mental health responders, said hospital spokesman Tom Casey. But St. Joseph’s has not yet determined exactly what credentials those new employees would need, officials said.
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ARRIVE Together pilot underway
The state has been running ARRIVE Together on a pilot basis in Cumberland and Union counties. The Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy group based in Washington, D.C., issued a report on ARRIVE Together 13 days after Seabrooks was fatally shot.
The report said the initiative “has the potential to change law enforcement culture in positive ways and provide officers with more strategies in their toolkit to better communicate and interact with the public.”
The report said a quarter of the people killed by police officers in the United States were suffering from a mental illness. “We also know that people who suffer from mental illness are more likely to be injured during police encounters,” the report said.
The Brookings study said it analyzed 342 calls for service handling under the ARRIVE Together pilot programs between December 2021 and January 2023, including people who reported contemplating death by suicide, being high on drugs, hallucinating, going through depression or experiencing emotional outbursts.
The study said 2% of those cases resulted in arrests. In four of the 342 incidents, the Brookings report said, the police officers ended up using force during their response to the call.
The study did not cite statistics on the frequency of arrests and police use of force in the towns covered by the pilot program for 911 mental health calls before ARRIVE Together.
Joe Malinconico is editor of Paterson Press.
Email: [email protected]