Sophie Nieto-Munoz, New Jersey Monitor
New Jersey Attorney General Matt Platkin assumed control of the embattled Paterson Police Department Monday, three weeks after an anti-violence activist in the city was killed by police while he was experiencing what his supporters have called a mental health crisis.
The announcement came with promises from Platkin that his office will reexamine how police officers statewide must behave when responding to mental health calls, expand a program pairing cops with mental health specialists into Passaic County, and repair the frayed relationship between Paterson residents and its police force.
“I know the announcement I’m making here today will not quell the strife in the city of Paterson overnight … but let me also be clear to all the residents of this great city: We will get there, and we will not leave until we do,” Platkin said Monday to a crowd of activists gathered to hear him speak on the steps of the city’s public safety headquarters.
The transition has already begun, with the chief of police relieved of his duties as of Monday morning and Platkin’s office seizing all law enforcement responsibilities, Platkin said.
Protestors have taken to the streets in recent weeks to protest the death of Najee Seabrooks, a 31-year-old activist who was shot and killed by Paterson cops after a four-hour standoff with police on March 3. The killing reignited conversations about police response to calls involving people suffering mental health crises.
Critics, including Seabrooks’ family members, said the state’s takeover isn’t enough. According to Stacey Rembert, Seabrooks’ cousin, they want the officers involved fired, the state to divulge whether the officers have been disciplined, an investigation completed into Seabrooks’ death, and to meet with the Attorney General’s Office to discuss reform.
“Not just one, but two SWAT teams in my living room responding to him. I’m traumatized,” said Melissa Carter, Seabrooks’ mother. “All I want is justice for Najee.”
Carter said no one from the Attorney General’s Office has reached out to talk to her.
Seabrooks was an anti-violence counselor who worked with the Paterson Healing Collective, a community-based group that helps respond to mental health crises in the city’s hospital. Seabrooks often worked with the youth in the community to keep them on the right path and cared deeply about his city, his family said.
Seabrooks’ killing was just the latest in a string of episodes that have angered people in Paterson, New Jersey’s third-largest city.
A yearslong federal investigation uncovered illegal exploits by a group of city cops — they called themselves the “robbery squad” — who robbed and beat Paterson residents, then bragged and joked privately about their behavior. Two of them were sentenced to federal prison last year. Their sergeant, Michael Cheff, was found guilty by a jury last May and sentenced to 33 months in prison.
And for years, residents have repeatedly complained about excessive use of force by police officers and alleged they targeted Black residents.
NYPD veteran to come to Paterson
Platkin has appointed Isa M. Abbassi, a 25-year veteran of the New York City Police Department, to head Paterson’s police department beginning in May.
Currently, Abbassi oversees police reform for the NYPD and was selected by that city’s police commissioner to rebuild community relations in the wake of Eric Garner’s death at the hands of police in 2014. Until Abbassi begins his new job, New Jersey State Police Major Fred Fife will serve as the officer in charge in Paterson.
The Attorney General’s Office has taken over municipal police departments dozens of times, Platkin said.
“We’re not coming here and going to be gone in six weeks. We’re here for the long haul,” said Platkin. “I don’t care how long it takes — this is the state of New Jersey coming in to provide the support this community needs, to provide the resources this community needs, and to provide the leadership that this community needs. We will not leave until we’re done.”
Activists have sent a letter to the U.S. Justice Department requesting federal oversight of the police department and an investigation into alleged unconstitutional conduct within the Paterson police force.
Paterson City Councilman Michael Jackson called Platkin’s move “a bad first start.” Jackson shouted at Platkin from the crowd during the announcement, claiming city officials were not alerted to the state takeover and were excluded from those discussions.
“I’m happy for the effort, but I think the objective is to protect and keep it in this city, away from federal oversight,” Jackson said. “I’m going to have faith that things are going to play out, but we don’t have much of a choice.”
Jackson noted Paterson Mayor Andre Sayegh’s absence from the press conference (the two are political rivals).
In a statement, Sayegh said he’s looking forward to working with the Attorney General’s Office again, more than a year after the department’s internal affairs bureau was under the control of the county prosecutor thanks to an attorney general directive.
“Moreover, we are eager to review the attorney general’s plan and timeline, as well as to share and build upon the reforms that we have already implemented. We will do everything we can to continue to improve our police department for the residents of Paterson,” he said.
Several other activists said they were happy to see the state take action against the troubled police department, even though they were hoping the announcement would be federal oversight. They’re willing to give Platkin’s team a chance, they said.
“I want to see where this goes,” said Corey Teague, a Paterson resident and activist. “I understand it’s ridiculous to think that tomorrow morning, we’re going to wake up, and everything’s just going to be okay. We know it’s not like that, but hopefully, over time, things begin to change.”
New policies, expanded programs announced
Along with the state seizing day-to-day control of the Paterson Police Department, Platkin announced several initiatives that will be unveiled in the coming months.
A state program that pairs plain-clothes officers with mental health specialists while responding to some 911 calls will come to Passaic County “as soon as the framework and appropriate supports are in place,” Platkin said. Gov. Phil Murphy has proposed $10 million to expand the program into Passaic and other counties starting July 1.
The program currently operates in Atlantic, Cumberland, and Union counties and has had a 100% success rate with no injuries, the Attorney General’s Office said.
Platkin will also revise the statewide use-of-force policy to include more protocols for people who are barricaded in a house or room when police respond, he said.
Also, a group will study and recommend policy initiatives to improve interactions between law enforcement and community-based violence intervention groups, Platkin’s office said.
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