Four hours of officer body camera footage was released Thursday in the police killing of Najee Seabrooks, a 31-year-old violence intervention activist, who was fatally shot in Paterson, N.J., during a mental health crisis.
Uploaded to a public Dropbox by the New Jersey attorney general’s office, more than a dozen redacted clips of video and 911 calls give new insight into the tense moments between Seabrooks and a group of officers during a five-hour standoff before his death.
In the two weeks since the fatal encounter on March 3, community members and advocates had held a number of demonstrations across the city calling for the release of the footage and demanding police accountability and reform. And while the videos and calls answer some questions about what exactly took place in the run-up to Seabrooks’s death, for many advocates they raise even more questions about why lethal force was used at all. For others, it also substantiates what they already knew: Seabrooks should still be alive.
“Najee was experiencing a mental health crisis,” Zellie Thomas, leader of the Paterson chapter of Black Lives Matter, told Yahoo News after the release of the body camera footage. “Everyone has a right to live, especially people in a state of mental or emotional distress.”
Most frustrating to critics, Seabrooks, who worked with the Paterson Healing Collective (PHC), a group dedicated to providing support for survivors of violence, had called members of the group during the standoff asking them to intervene, but officers refused. Paterson Police Department did not return Yahoo News' request for comment.
Police had responded to calls of a mentally disturbed person in his home just before 8 a.m. on March 3, according to the state AG’s account, and when they arrived at the scene, Seabrooks had barricaded himself inside the apartment. Family members of his told police that he was “hallucinating and behaving erratically.”
Twelve clips of video from seven officers’ body cameras, alongside seven emergency phone calls, some coming from Seabrooks, show that officers had repeatedly told him to put multiple knives down during the standoff. At one point Seabrooks says, “Ya’ll are trying to kill me,” as armed officers stand outside the bathroom he is in.
An unidentified officer responds, “No one will kill you here. We’re worried about you.”
Throughout that morning, several officers, including members of the department's emergency response team, as well as crisis negotiators and the EMS, responded to the apartment, according to authorities.
At another point in the encounter, officers tell Seabrooks to stop cutting himself with the knives, as he repeatedly says, “Don’t shoot me.” He also asks to speak to his mother “one last time.”
An officer attempts to reassure him, saying, “I’m sure she doesn’t want to see you like this,” moments before Seabrooks appears to lunge at an officer, allegedly with a knife in his hand. Two officers, both members of the emergency response team, Anzore Tsay and Jose Hernandez, discharged their weapons, striking Seabrooks, according to the state AG’s office. Officers then moved to handcuff him. He was later pronounced dead at St. Joseph’s Regional Medical Center in Paterson.
Reaction to video footage
For Michael Mitchell, an assistant professor of African American studies and criminology at the College of New Jersey, the video footage shows that not all options were exhausted.
“The video’s release certainly adds more questions as to why non-law enforcement personnel, for example, the psychiatric team at St. Joseph’s Medical Center, and/or members of the Paterson Healing Collective, were either not called to the location or denied some access at the very least to assist in de-escalation,” Mitchell told Yahoo News in an email.
The edited and partially redacted video and phone calls released Thursday left many community members unsatisfied.
“Despite what the videotape revealed — the edited, blurred, redacted videotape revealed — nothing trumps our real-life testimony,” PHC member Casey Melvin told the Paterson Press. “We were there. We know he walked in and left out on a stretcher.”
The release of the audio and video footage comes just three days after dozens of grassroots advocacy groups across the state wrote a letter to the Department of Justice, urging it to launch its own investigation into the Paterson Police Department, citing years of “unlawful and unconstitutional conduct.”
In the joint letter, advocates cited at least two dozen news reports and audits of the police department in the last decade, along with Seabrooks’s death, as reasons for the probe.
Mitchell, a former detention service officer in a large county jail mental health housing unit, says the video highlights the complexities of dealing with someone experiencing a mental health crisis, something he says that police officers are typically not equipped to handle.
“On several occasions, I have personally encountered individuals experiencing a mental health crisis inside of a correctional facility,” he said. “In my experience, these encounters take time, patience, empathy and individuals/professionals with specialized training in crisis intervention.
“A growing body of research underscores the complexities of mental illness and violence, and law enforcement responses alone, without assistance of mental health professionals or individuals trained in crisis intervention, can be counterproductive. Unfortunately, the result for Najee was death.”
Officials said they could not deploy their Tasers, because Seabrooks had broken pipes in the apartment and started a small fire that left significant amounts of water on the floor, making the use of the electrical device too dangerous.
The state AG's office said the shooting remains under investigation.
In the two weeks since Seabrooks’s death, much of the city has been in mourning, expressing anger, outrage and sadness at various rallies and press conferences. At a City Council meeting Tuesday, two city officials nearly came to blows as a council member and the city’s finance director approached one another after a tense verbal exchange.
The case, for many, has exposed a stark divide between members of the community and most city leaders, many of whom have remained tight-lipped since Seabrooks’s death. But Thomas said the fight for justice in the killing will only continue.
“As long as we feel it’s justifiable that someone should be killed for experiencing a mental health crisis, when other resources exist to keep them safe, we will continue fighting,” Thomas said. “There will always be someone in this country experiencing a mental health crisis, but they don’t always have to die.”
Cover thumbnail: Penitas Police Dept. via AP