In the aftermath of the fatal police shooting of activist Najee Seabrooks, residents in Paterson, New Jersey, still have questions about why someone suffering a mental health crisis and needing help, ends up dead.
Dr. Liza Chowdhury, project director of the Paterson Healing Collective, fondly remembers meeting Najee Seabrooks as a 16-year-old. She recalls that he was funny and goofy at first impression but saw his maturity gradually turn him into an inspiring community leader seeking real change. “His commitment to giving back was steadfast—from organizing clothing drives for kids who needed it most to being a devoted father towards his daughter Sofia with whom he had a strong bond. He truly embodied genuine growth and transformation,” she told The Final Call.
Mr. Seabrooks worked tirelessly to serve and protect those around him at Paterson Healing Collective (PHC), helping young people stay away from violence by being their source of strength and guidance, noted various news reports.
The office of the New Jersey Attorney General released police body-cam video on March 16 of the March 3 shooting of the 31year old Black man.
Some people are asking if a mental health professional engaged with Mr. Seabrooks at the scene would he still be alive today? According to reports, Mr. Seabrooks contacted emergency services in the hope of receiving help from an appropriate response team.
An Emergency Response Team from the police department in Paterson responded and an intense and prolonged standoff ensued that lasted over four hours. Rather than welcoming help from the Paterson Healing Collective with whom Mr. Seabrooks had solid connections and was on the scene, police officers reportedly shut out any assistance. According to reports, police also did not utilize nearby crisis intervention teams at Saint Joseph’s University Medical Center.
According to Dr. Chowdhury, Mr. Seabrooks desperately sought help from multiple sources—including the police and the Paterson Healing Collective. “Eight people from PHC responded to his plea for support between 8:00 a.m. and 12:00 p.m., even receiving text messages asking where we were at? It’s heart-wrenching that the police ignored these requests in such an extreme hour of need,” she said.
Paterson Mayor Andre Sayegh praised the officers who responded to the scene with Mr. Seabrooks, stating that they “did everything they could to avoid a tragic outcome,” and rejected calls for a federal probe into the shooting.
While Paterson, New Jersey, remains a small but vibrant city 21 miles from New York City, it, unfortunately, holds an infamous status for police violence. According to an investigative report by ABC7ny.com, since 2013, Paterson has paid out more than $2 million in settlements, much of that to people claiming police abuse.
The Paterson Police Department, mayor’s office and New Jersey Attorney General’s office did not respond to messages seeking comment on the case. At presstime, nj.com reported that the N.J. Attorney General announced the operational takeover of the police department.
In the aftermath of Mr. Seabrooks’ tragic death activists have been fighting for progress in a time of grief, holding vigils and calling for reforms, including establishing civilian review boards to provide external oversight over the police departments. The New Jersey Institute for Social Justice has requested that the U.S. Department of Justice open an investigation. The institute also stressed its commitment to exploring non-law enforcement responses when handling mental health matters—sparking much-needed dialogue on this pressing issue nationwide.
“The city of Paterson is facing a troubling situation, with the mayor, attorney general, and governor all asserting that it was justifiable. However, the community is calling for justice,” Bilal Hakeem, a Paterson activist with the Power Coalition, told The Final Call.
“Najee was a person known by local police officers (and) found himself in the throes of a mental health crisis. However, these same officers were not equipped to handle it appropriately, as evidenced by their fatal use of force against him. Acknowledging this failure was Paterson’s Police Director Jerry Speziale, who said they ‘did not make the right assessment,’” said Mr. Hakeem.
“Even more concerning is that other high-ranking officials claim such tragedy did not have to take place—further illustrating how ill-prepared law enforcement can be when facing such serious situations. We are imploring the federal government to step in and assume responsibility for the investigation, as it is impossible to trust those in power who have perpetuated a narrative of justifiability regarding this tragic incident. It’s undeniable that shooting was unjustified, no matter how often they say otherwise.” Mr. Hakeem said.
Dr. Chowdhury said the gravity of police killings of people suffering from mental health episodes necessitates deeper consideration and a national conversation. “Public safety is a vital concern for American communities, and the reality of police-only solutions has proven inadequate. We wanted to foster an infrastructure based on community initiatives, but even with our efforts, we could not help one of our own when they were in need. This underscores why essential public discourse shifts towards creating meaningful programs prioritizing people over policing techniques alone,” she said.
Nation of Islam Student Minister Abdul Haqq Muhammad of Mosque No. 25 in Newark said that truth must prevail in the case of Mr. Seabrooks. “We are in the ‘War of Armageddon’ where truth will prevail over falsehood,” he stated. “The police force was built on a false belief that Black men are criminals,” he said. “This notion was handed down. And I think that a lot of these police officers, they have that same mentality, a lot of those beliefs,” he said. Paterson is located about 15 miles from Newark.
“Minister Farrakhan has said hardened attitudes and beliefs remain a formidable barrier to freedom for Black people. This prevailing notion that we are inherently violent or ‘bad’ continues to haunt the lives of many innocent individuals. Even during arrest, police treat us with an implicit assumption predicated on fear rather than respect coming with their guns drawn,” added Student Minister Muhammad.
Larry Hamm of the Newark-based Peoples Organization for Progress told The Final Call that a significant show of solidarity from all areas of Paterson’s Black community was present at Mr. Seabrook’s funeral on March 18, with over 1,200 in attendance. In response to the tragedy, a coalition of advocacy groups, including the NAACP New Jersey State Conference and ACLU, issued a joint request urging the U.S. Department Of Justice to examine Paterson Police Department’s history of excessive force and unfair behavior culminating in Mr. Seabooks’ death.
Mr. Hamm has acknowledged the urgent cry from the Paterson community for a police review board, to which Dr. Chowdhury lamented that “we are depended on a system that is obviously rigged.”