3 Paterson Officers Used 'Less Lethal Force' Before Two Shot Non-Violence Activist, AG Says

UPDATE: Three Paterson police officers first employed “less lethal force” before two others shot and killed a local non-violence activist who was in the middle of a mental health crisis last week, the state’s top law enforcement official said Wednesday.

What Najee Seabrooks did with inner-city youngsters was “life-changing, soul-saving kind of work.”
What Najee Seabrooks did with inner-city youngsters was “life-changing, soul-saving kind of work.” Photo Credit: New Jersey Violence Intervention and Prevention Coalition

Tensions were rising in the city as New Jersey Attorney General Matthew J. Platkin formally identified Najee Seabrooks, who was killed during the nearly five-hour confrontation at his home last Friday, and the officers who were directly involved in a release on Wednesday.

Mayor Andre Sayegh, who has been criticized by community leaders for previous public statements following police-involved shootings, called for the “immediate” release of the body camera footage from last week.

“We want the truth,” the mayor said.

Platkin and his recent predecessors have made such footage available fairly quickly following police-involved shootings in New Jersey – just not as fast as the mayor is now insisting.

State law and his own guidelines require Platkin to review deaths that occur “during an encounter with a law enforcement officer acting in the officer’s official capacity or while the decedent is in custody," no matter what the circumstances are.

The guidelines guarantee that the investigation is done “in a full, impartial and transparent manner," removing politics or personal agendas, he has said.

Family members are the first to see any video related to the incident, including all footage recorded by body cameras, dashcams and surveillance/security cameras.

For now, Platkin summarized the preliminary findings on Wednesday.

It all began, he said, when city police, responding to a 911 call of a person in distress, found that Seabrooks had barricaded himself in the bathroom of his apartment near the corner of Mill and Edison streets shortly after 7:30 a.m. March 3.

“At approximately 8:42 a.m., additional resources from the Paterson Police Department responded to the scene including the Crisis Negotiation Team (CNT) and the Emergency Response Team (ERT),” Platkin said.

“During the encounter, less lethal force was deployed by three (3) officers, identified as Hector Mendez, Qiad Lin, and Mario Vdovjak,” the attorney general noted.

“At approximately 12:35 p.m. two (2) members of the ERT, Officer Anzore Tsay and Officer Jose Hernandez, discharged their weapons striking Mr. Seabrooks,” he said.

“Mr. Seabrooks was transported to Saint Joseph's [University] Medical Center, where he was pronounced deceased at 12:51 p.m.,” Platkin said.

The attorney general didn’t address reports from responders at the scene that Seabrooks had started a small bathroom fire that was quickly extinguished.

A pained, shaken and angry community is demanding answers to several other questions, as well.

They've insisted from the start that some of them should have been asked to talk with Seabrooks, who all have agreed was clearly in crisis. Instead, they said, officers allowed the situation to escalate before exacting a fatal solution.

Seabrooks was described as a “frontline violence prevention professional” with the Paterson Healing Collective (PHC), a unique hospital-based violence intervention program. His colleagues insist they would’ve known what to say to him.

“It is deeply distressing to hear that, in the midst of a mental health crisis, Najee's team, his family, was not allowed to do the work they were trained to do,” the New Jersey Violence Intervention and Prevention Coalition said in a statement. “When he needed his community the most, he was denied the help he required, and the police response failed him.”

“Execution by a police firing squad for being barricaded in your own home is incomprehensible,” added Ryan Haygood, president & CEO of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice.

“This tragedy could have been prevented with compassionate, skilled attention that was present and available,” Haywood said. “The rejection of that care is in itself a form of police violence and a compounded assault on a Black life.”

Police, in turn, have said that it’s their responsibility to handle such situations, that they have trained professionals doing that job and that they cannot put civilians in harm's way.

The president of the Paterson Superior Officers Union, Detective Lt. Mason Maher, said negotiators talked Seabrooks into letting them into the bathroom but then brandished a knife, leaving them no other option. The officers, he said, “are suffering, too.”

Seabrooks not only survived street violence. He’d also become a community leader who was trying to bring peace to the Silk City.

“He was a great mediator,” said Liza Chowdhury of the Paterson Healing Collective. “He did so much to help our youth.”

What Seabrooks did with inner-city youngsters was “life-changing, soul-saving kind of work,” political candidate Akkheem L. Dunham added.

A vigil and rally drew a large crowd Tuesday night:

Members of the Paterson Healing Collective, the NJ Violence Intervention and Prevention Coalition and others aired a list of demands that included:

  • Identifying the officers involved, which Platkin did on Wednesday;
  • Immediately releasing police body camera footage to the family;
  • Placing the involved officers on administrative leave;
  • Creating a crisis response team staffed by unarmed civilians;
  • Creating a Civilian Complaint Review Board “with investigatory and subpoena power”;
  • The resignations of Passaic County Prosecutor Camelia M. Valdes and Paterson Public Safety Director Gerald Speziale.

“We must shine a light on the injustice of Najee’s death,” the coalition said in a statement. “He worked every day to prevent violence in his community yet died a violent death at the hands of those hired to protect and serve the people.

“We must shine a light on the brutality of policing,” the group added. “We must shine a light on the disturbing problem of sending armed non-experts—the police—to address sensitive mental health crises.

“Najee’s death is one more senseless violent act that underscores how critically important it is to have community-based first responders, like Paterson Healing Collective, who are trained in de-escalation and community crisis response in our neighborhoods.”

A grand jury will review all of the materials gathered by Platkin’s Office of Public Integrity and Accountability (OPIA) during its investigation.

That includes a host of evidence -- including witness interviews, body camera video, and forensic and autopsy results – through which the grand jurors will determine whether it was a clean shoot or a criminal investigation is warranted.

Seabrooks’s family will have an opportunity to review any video and/or audio recordings from the time of the 911 call through the entire incident before these are released to the public.

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