Photo of Najee Seabrooks courtesy of the Paterson Healing Collective.

The ACLU-NJ has called for federal intervention, police discipline transparency, and legislative action. 

Najee Seabrooks was experiencing a mental health crisis when he called the police for help. The Paterson Healing Collective – a community violence intervention group that Mr. Seabrooks worked at and dedicated his life to – arrived at the scene and pleaded with the Paterson Police Department (PPD) to let the Collective do what they do best: de-escalate and save lives. He deserved care from members of the Collective and mental health professionals. Instead, he was shot and killed by police. He should be alive today.  

Tragically, the way PPD mishandled Mr. Seabrooks’ mental health crisis and then killed him isn’t an isolated incident. It's yet another example of widespread, systemic, and unmistakable mismanagement and violence. Nearly 25% of Paterson’s residents are Black, yet they account for 49% of arrests and 43% of people killed by police. Between 2015 and 2019, Paterson had more excessive force complaints than Jersey City and Newark, cities that are twice its size. The PPD’s Internal Affairs Division was even under the oversight of the Passaic County Prosecutor’s Office (PCPO) – but it’s clear that PPD has not improved.   

The Paterson community – and all New Jerseyans – deserve better. That’s why the ACLU-NJ and our partners have called for federal intervention, transparency, and legislative action. 

Paterson Police Department’s history of impunity calls for federal intervention.

Police officers must be held accountable. Too often, we see racist policing go unpunished as a result of a criminal legal system built upon white supremacy. And despite years of oversight by the PCPO, PPD’s unconstitutional behavior persists. The ACLU-NJ joined 48 New Jersey groups to send a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice calling for a federal investigation of PPD’s pattern of misconduct that continues to deprive the Paterson community of their civil rights.  

Ensuring that the PPD is held accountable is just part of what Najee Seabrooks’ family and the Paterson community need and deserve. There is much more to be done. We must reimagine policing by enacting laws to check officers’ power, hold law enforcement accountable to the people they are meant to serve, make policing practices transparent to all communities, and invest in non-law enforcement alternatives to public safety. 

Transparency and accountability of police power are two sides of the same coin.  

In 2020, the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office issued a directive to improve police interactions with people with special needs and people with mental illness. More than two years later, the PCPO has refused to publicly release information on the county's implementation of the directive. The ACLU-NJ wrote a letter on behalf of the Paterson Healing Collective and other community members requesting access to these records, arguing that the PCPO is obligated by law to share information on the implementation of the directive.

But building a systemic culture of accountability will only be possible if police disciplinary records are made public – it is the only way to identify police officers with histories of violent or racist conduct. New Jersey lags behind many other states that do not keep police disciplinary records hidden from the public. Shielding officers and their conduct is just one part of what is broken within a larger system that necessitates change from top to bottom. 

Lawmakers must honor their promises for New Jersey to build systemic change. 

New Jersey’s injustices in policing are deeply systemic and require wholesale shifts in practice and culture of law enforcement. To move toward a more just New Jersey, lawmakers must begin by enacting policies that reflect the urgency of reducing the outsized power of police.  

For years, the ACLU-NJ and our community partners have demanded action on a set of bills that will increase accountability of police and begin to put power in communities, including providing public access to disciplinary records, creating civilian complaint review boards that have subpoena authority, and ending qualified immunity. 

New Jersey lawmakers pledged action after the murder of George Floyd. Since, we’ve seen continued violence against Black and brown communities at the hands of New Jersey law enforcement. Elected officials must honor their repeated promises to protect Black lives and take meaningful action. 

Together, we can go beyond reforms, hold police accountable, and reinvest in community-based, life-affirming public safety programs and solutions. New Jersey communities deserve tools to hold police accountable – join us in urging your lawmakers to reimagine policing. We won’t stop fighting for it.