Fatal standoff rekindles debate over how police treat people in distress

A protest march a week after police shot and killed Naji Seabrooks, in Paterson, New Jersey on March 10, 2023.  (Brian Anselm/The New York Times)

A protest march a week after police shot and killed Naji Seabrooks, in Paterson, New Jersey on March 10, 2023. (Brian Anselm/The New York Times)

For hours, Paterson police begged Naji Seabrooks to come out of the locked bathroom, where he threatened to kill himself.

“Everyone is getting out of here, including you,” one of the officers told him, according to police body camera footage released this week by the New Jersey Attorney General’s office.

“I’m dying in this bathroom,” said Seabrooks, a 31-year-old mentor for an anti-violence organization in Paterson, a northern New Jersey city of 158,000.

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“It’s not happening, Naji,” the officer replied. “Not on my watch. Come on. You’ll live a long time. This isn’t how it ends for you.

But at 12:51 p.m. on March 3, about five hours after someone called 911 to report a person in distress, Seabrooks was pronounced dead. He was shot dead by two officers who opened fire after Seabrooks emerged from the bathroom and “rushed at the officers with a knife in his hand,” according to a statement from the Attorney General’s Office, which is investigating the shooting.

The Attorney General’s Office identified the two officers who fired their weapons as Anzore Tsaya and José Hernandez, both of whom are members of the department’s emergency response team.

The case rocked the city, where Seabrooks’ colleagues and family demanded to know why mental health professionals weren’t allowed into the apartment so they could help. Protesters came out to condemn the shooting and call on the US Department of Justice to investigate. A week after Seabrooks was shot, several dozen people gathered at a restaurant owned by one of the officers involved in the shooting and started kicking and kicking the security gates.

Footage released by the Attorney General, taken from at least four hours of footage from cameras worn by officers at the scene, shows police repeatedly telling Seabrook, who can be seen at points with a bloody knife, to come out and talk to his mother. They asked him how they could help, urged him to stop cutting himself, and then begged him to get out so they could take him to the hospital. Then, at 12:35, Seabrooks jumped out of the bathroom.

“There was a dangerous situation there,” said Andre Sayegh, mayor of Paterson, whose administration has repeatedly called on the state attorney general’s office to release footage from police body cameras.

The officers “were there to help, and as you will see in the video, they tried their best to avoid a tragic outcome,” he said.

The police did not respond to messages with comments. The Prosecutor General’s Office said they would not comment other than their own statement, citing an ongoing investigation.

Members of the Paterson Healing Collective, an anti-violence organization for which Seabrooks worked for two years as an interventionist, said the videos show exactly why the police should not be the primary responder when a person is going through a mental health crisis.

The officers had their weapons drawn when they spoke to Seabrooks, who told the officers he had three knives and “a pistol fully loaded”.

Members of the Paterson Healing Collective said police forbade them to intervene as they waited for hours in the lobby of the high-rise apartment building where Seabrooks was shot.

According to Lisa Chowdhury, project director of the Paterson Healing Collective, Seabrooks repeatedly wrote to members of the collective that morning asking where they were.

“I need to hear your voices. I need to see your faces,” she wrote. Even after Seabrooks’ colleagues showed the messages to officers at the scene, “the police wouldn’t let us in,” Chowdhury said. When she asked the city’s director of public safety, Jerry Speciale, to grant her employees access to the apartment, she said he replied that the department had sent a unit trained to de-escalate situations like this.

Speziale did not immediately respond to a message asking for comment.

Chowdhury said her staff are trained to spend hours talking to people going through the “worst situations of their lives.”

“Any mental health professional knows that patience is the key,” she said. “Patience, sympathy, understanding.”

Chowdhury, who has been a probation officer for 10 years, said showing a weapon to a person going through a mental health crisis only adds to the paranoia and fear.

Yannick Wood, director of criminal justice reform at the New Jersey Social Justice Institute, said “there’s something wrong with the system when someone asks for a mental health issue and ends up being approached by people with weapons.”

When the police arrived, Seabrooks was already in the bathroom. He came to his brother’s apartment around 2 a.m., grabbed “several knives” and locked himself in, his relatives told police.

According to the attorney general, the family said “he may have had a bad reaction to something he was smoking and that his actions were completely out of character.”

The uniformed officers tried to talk him into leaving and then asked his mother to talk to him outside the door.

“Please, Naji,” she said, weeping. “I love you Naji. Open the door. Naji, come on, please open the door for me.

He won’t come out.

His mother told police that Seabrooks did not have a mental illness, but according to the video, his work in helping young people prevent violence was becoming increasingly stressful.

“I think it gets to him,” she said. “He saw how many of his friends were killed.”

When the officer told her that Seabrooks had told the police he had a gun, she looked confused.

Where does he get a gun from? she asked.

Soon a specialized unit arrived with shields, powerful firearms and helmets.

At 11:46 a.m., Seabrooks, who was shirtless, looked out the door and saw officers pointing guns in his direction. He let out a scream.

— How are you going? he asked, then cursed.

“Drop the knife, man,” demanded the officer.

“Less than fatal,” the warden ordered. “Less lethal.”

He was told to stop cutting himself and get out. Because of the camera angles, it’s hard to see Seabrooks in the bathroom, but you can hear him screaming.

The officers kept begging him to drop the knives.

“Just put them down,” one of the officers said. They suggested that he talk to his mother again.

“I’m sure she doesn’t want to see you like this,” one of the officers said seconds before Seabrook seemed to jump out the door.

“Drop it!” shouted the officer shortly before the shots rang out.

Chowdhury said Seabrooks’ family plans to hold his funeral on Saturday. According to her, he has a daughter who is about 4 years old.

Chowdhury said that while her officers were at the scene, she texted Seabrooks and spoke to police on the phone. Then her employees called and said they heard shots.

“I just said no. I didn’t believe it,” she said. “I never thought the police were going to kill him.”

c.2023 The New York Times Company

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