Dozens of NJ groups want feds to investigate of Paterson police after latest shooting death

New Jersey social justice groups are calling on the federal Department of Justice to investigate the use of force by the Paterson Police Department — describing this month’s death of Najee Seabrooks as just the latest incident in “a history of excessive force and other abuse.”

Paterson police officers shot and killed Seabrooks on March 3 during an incident at his home that community groups have described as an apparent mental health crisis. Seabrooks, 31, had been part of the Paterson Healing Collective, a hospital-based violence intervention program.

The state Attorney General’s Office — which investigates all fatal shootings by police — has said Seabrooks barricaded himself in a bathroom, and that three officers used “less lethal force” during the altercation before Officer Anzore Tsay and Officer Jose Hernandez both discharged their weapons. He was pronounced dead at Saint Joseph’s Medical Center about 25 minutes later.

Members of the Paterson Healing Collective and the city’s Black Lives Matter chapter say the police presence escalated the situation, that Seabrooks didn’t have a gun and that family and friends including PHC members weren’t allowed to help talk Seabrooks down.

An open letter to the DOJ Monday from the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice — which includes former state attorney general John J. Farmer and former U.S. Attorney Paul J. Fishman on its board — alleged Paterson police had engaged in a “pattern and practice of misconduct and impunity that deprives the residents of Paterson of their civil rights.”

The letter was co-signed by representatives of dozens of New Jersey social justice and activist organizations, including the state’s ACLU chapter, the state NAACP conference, the Latino Action Network, New Jersey Policy Perspective and Salvation and Social Justice.

“This is not the only tragic death that we’ve seen at the hands of the Paterson Police Department,” said Yannick Wood, director of the Criminal Justice Reform Program at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice.

He cited a “whole long line” of incidents involving excessive force or other allegations — in some cases, convictions — of misconduct.

“At this point there needs to be an investigation of the Paterson Police Department to see the patterns and practices of unconstitutional misconduct that they’ve been perpetuating on the residents of Paterson,” Wood said.

The letter cites several past incidents of police force and alleged abuse. Among them:

It notes that in February, the Attorney General’s Office filed charges against a Paterson officer who shot a fleeing man in the back, paralyzing him. Paterson Mayor Andre Sayegh has defended the officer, saying he was following guidelines while pursuing someone he thought had a gun.

The letter also points to an ongoing lawsuit against the city in the 2019 death of Jameek Lowery, who died in police custody; family members have alleged he was restrained and beaten on the way to a hospital after seeking help from police during a mental breakdown.

It points to federal charges against two officers seen on video repeatedly punching a 19-year-old in 2021, and to convictions of five officers and a sergeant for robbing residents during stops — a group an assistant U.S. attorney described as a “literal robbery squad.” It notes the ongoing missing persons case of Felix DeJesus, dropped off in a park by Paterson police a year ago and not seen since; officers involved in the case were suspended for turning off their body cameras and other procedural violations.

And the letter notes Paterson only recently regained control of its internal affairs operations following 17 months of oversight by the Passaic County Prosecutor’s Office.

The letter alleges a pattern of misconduct that it says has disproportionately affected Black and brown residents. It also says Paterson police and other authorities have failed to hold the department accountable, and that the department “critically needs independent oversight.”

“DOJ must intervene to bring about the kind of accountability that Mr. Seabrooks and his family, and others like them, deserve – along with the people of Paterson,” the letter states.

Seabrooks’ death set off a wave of activism in Paterson, including protests and a petition that calls for officers involved in his death to be charged; the establishment of a civilian complaint review board; an end to the doctrine of qualified immunity that shields officials from individual liability in most circumstances; and an autonomous crisis response team that operates independently of police. As of Monday, 5,600 people had signed the petition.

Sayegh had promoted civilian review boards in 2019, but the initiative stalled out when police unions in Newark sued to challenge the creation of a board there, reports. The case is pending before the state Supreme Court.

The New Jersey Attorney General’s Office has not yet released body-worn camera footage from Seabrooks’ shooting. It initially resisted calls to release the involved officers’ names, before disclosing them late last week.

The New Jersey Institute for Social Justice letter points to the Justice Department’s recent findings that Louisville, Kentucky police had engaged in a” pattern or practice of conduct that violates the U.S. Constitution and federal law,” discriminating against Black people, using excessive force and conducting illegal searches. The federal civil rights probe was prompted by the 2020 killing of Breonna Taylor.

Gothamist reached out to the Paterson Police Department about the letter Monday afternoon and is awaiting a response.

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Nancy Solomon Louis C. Hochman