Paterson police body-camera video from Najee Seabrooks shooting released by NJ AG's office
PATERSON — In the final moments of Najee Seabrooks’ life, he wanted to talk to his mother.
The 31-year-old violence intervention specialist made that request to the four Paterson police officers who were standing outside his apartment bathroom on March 3 after a standoff that had gone on for almost five hours.
The officers had asked him — over and over again for several minutes — to put down the knives he was wielding. They had asked him to stop cutting himself. Then they asked where his mother was.
“Naj, c’mon, let’s take you to your mother,” said one of the officers, a member of the Paterson Police Department's Emergency Response Team, standing behind a protective shield, wearing a helmet. “Let her talk to you. I’m sure she doesn’t want to see you like this.”
As the officer was speaking those words, Seabrooks charged out of the bathroom and was struck by a burst of five gunshots fired by two Paterson police officers. Those moments were captured in police body camera recordings made public late Thursday afternoon by the New Jersey Attorney General’s office.
The attorney general's office said Seabrooks lunged towards the officers with a knife in his hand. Three of the recordings captured the sound of the gunshots that killed Seabrooks. In two of those videos, he could be seen emerging from the bathroom. The images from the frantic death scene did not clearly show him with a knife.
But the knife was visible in Seabrooks’ hand in at least one of the other recordings that showed his last minutes.
After releasing very little information about the incident for 13 days, state officials on Thursday put out almost 220 minutes of footage from seven different officers’ body cameras. Authorities redacted portions of the videos. The incident went on for almost five hours and involved numerous Paterson police officers.
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Advocates, cops react to AG's release of bodycam footage, 911 calls
The attorney general's office on Thursday also made public recordings of seven 911 calls, including some made by Seabrooks himself. In releasing the documents, the AG’s Office also provided its most detailed written account of what authorities say happened.
The fact that the recordings were redacted drew criticism from some of Seabrooks’ friends and supporters who questioned whether what the state released showed the true picture of what happened. Seabrooks had worked at the Paterson Healing Collective, a nonprofit violence intervention group.
“Things have been redacted,” PHC member Casey Melvin told the Paterson Press. “They only showed about 90 minutes. There were faces blurred, names covered and it was spliced.”
During a press conference called by the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice on Thursday, Melvin said some people would try to “nitpick” based on what the video showed.
The Healing Collective has maintained that Seabrooks would be alive if the police at the scene allowed its members to go inside the apartment to talk to the troubled man.
“Despite what the videotape revealed — the edited, blurred, redacted videotape revealed — nothing trumps our real-life testimony,” said Melvin. “We were there. We know he walked in and left out in a stretcher.”
Melvin’s Healing Collective colleague, Teddie Martinez, said Seabrooks was killed in the midst of a “mental health crisis.
“It don’t get no clearer than that,” Martinez said.
ACLU of New Jersey Executive Director Amol Sinhacalled the videos “traumatizing and difficult to witness.”
“The disturbing videos put out today reinforce a reality: deep investment in non-law enforcement first responses to mental health calls is an urgent and life-saving need,” Sinha said. “We must make every effort to prevent the unnecessary escalation that happens far too often when police take the lead on these calls for help — it will save lives.”
Mason Maher, president of the union that represents Paterson’s ranking police officers, said the incident was “tragic for all involved.
“As the community watches the video of the event I'm sure they will see the compassion and help offered by the members of the Paterson Police Department working hard to deescalate the situation and bring it to a peaceful conclusion,” Maher said. “We are hopeful that the attorney general will conduct a full and thorough investigation so the community can see the truth and together with law enforcement can continue to heal and work together.
Alex Cruz, president of Paterson PBA Local 1, echoed Maher’s comments.
“As the body cam videos show, multiple officers were there for hours, patiently working to end this crisis safely,” Cruz said. “They put their hearts and souls into helping Mr. Seabrooks. Unfortunately, there are those who seek to gain by stirring trouble based upon false allegations. The facts, including these videos, speak for themselves.”
Prior to releasing the video footage to the press, state authorities showed the videos on Thursday morning to Seabrooks’ family and people who were close to him and provided a separate preview of the recordings to city pastors at Calvary Baptist Church in Paterson.
Clergy members who viewed the recordings in Paterson declined to speak to a news reporter about what they had seen.
Earlier coverage:Najee Seabrooks: Did NJ’s 2020 directive on mental health cases prompt any change?
Advocates call on federal officials:Feds urged to investigate Najee Seabrooks killing. Hospital asks why no call to crisis team
'I need help bad': Seabrooks in 911 call
The 911 calls released by the AG’s Office included five made by Seabrooks.
“Can I have two cops come to Mill Street,” he said in the first 911 call. “I need help … I need help bad.”
The dispatcher asked him what was going on. “I received a lot of death threats,” he said. “People waiting for me when I walk out.”
On his second 911 call, the emergency dispatcher told Seabrooks the police were already at his location. “I don’t believe them,” he said, before adding, “Well, I’m thinking about killing myself, so send more.”
The attorney general also released a 911 call from Seabrooks that was handled by authorities in Fairfield.
“They got me trapped in a bathroom,” Seabrooks told the Fairfield dispatcher. “They trying to kill me.”
The dispatcher asked him who was holding him in the bathroom.
“Paterson cops,” he said.
What prompted Seabrooks' crisis?
Authorities have not revealed exactly was prompted Seabrooks’ breakdown. The attorney general's account said the first officers on the scene met Seabrooks family members who reportedly informed the officers he was hallucinating and behaving erratically. The family said he may have been experiencing a bad reaction to something he had smoked and that his actions were completely out of character, according to state authorities.
The family members told the police that they believed he had arrived at the apartment around 2 a.m., and in the morning grabbed some knives and locked himself inside the bathroom, according to the attorney general's office.
After the police emergency response team and a fire department paramedics arrived, Seabrooks told the police that he had two knives, and a gun he referred to as a “pocket rocket,” state officials said. The police and family members pleaded with Seabrooks to unlock the door and come out of the bathroom so they could get him help.
Seabrooks then asked that a police sergeant be called to the scene, officials said. The sergeant told Seabrooks to come out of the bathroom, explaining that he was not in any trouble and would be taken to the hospital to be evaluated. During this time, Seabrooks repeated that he had a gun, authorities said.
At approximately 9:40 a.m., a trained negotiator from the Paterson Police Department arrived on scene, officials said. For approximately one hour and thirty minutes, two police sergeants, EMS workers, family members and trained negotiators spoke to Mr. Seabrooks to get him to come out from inside the bathroom.
Officers explained to Seabrooks that his work “mentor” could not come into the apartment due to safety concerns, because Seabrooks had knives and claimed to have a gun, officials said.
At about 10:15 a.m. a loud crash was heard from inside the bathroom and water began flooding the apartment, officials said. Seabrooks was cutting himself with the knives and was bleeding, according to the attorney general's office.
At 10:26 a.m. when officers had not heard from Seabrooks for a while, the officers attempted to break into the bathroom, but were unable to do so, as the door appeared to be barricaded, officials said.
While they were speaking with Seabrooks, officers observed knives in his hands and Seabrooks told the officers he had a fully loaded gun and threatened to shoot people, according to the attorney general's office.
Seabrooks threw various items at the police and started a fire in the bathroom, officials said. He threw an unknown liquid in the face of one of the officers, who was taken to the hospital, treated and later released.
During this time, vacillated from Seabrooks expressing a willingness to cooperate with the police and accept the help being offered, to saying that he was going to die in the bathroom and take one of the officers with him, according to the attorney general's office.
The police fired about 15 “less than lethal sponge tipped projectiles” at Seabrooks, some of which struck him, but did not subdue him.
The attorney general's office said that at approximately 12:35 p.m., Seabrooks came out of the bathroom and lunged toward the officers with a knife in his hand, officials said. The officers fired five shots. Seabrooks fell to the ground and officers removed the knife from his hand.
Chorus of voices sought videos
Seabrooks’ family and friends, social justice activists, community leaders, local elected officials and law enforcement supporters have been calling for state authorities to release the videos since almost immediately after the Paterson man was shot on March 3 at the end of a 4½-hour encounter with city police at his apartment on Mill Street near the Great Falls.
Seabrooks’ death sparked public outrage and protest rallies, including several near-miss confrontations between protesters and police. Passions were fueled by assertions from Seabrooks’ co-workers at the Paterson Healing Collective violence intervention group that he contacted them and asked them to intervene during the prolonged standoff.
But Healing Collective members said police at the apartment building refused to let them see their friend during his crisis.
Five days after the shooting, the Attorney General's Office said Paterson police officers were responding at 7:42 a.m. “to a 911 call of an individual in distress” when they encountered Seabrooks.
An hour later, the Paterson Police Department’s Crisis Negotiation Team and the Emergency Response Team (ERT) arrived at the scene, state officials said. Three officers — Hector Mendez, Qiao Lin and Mario Vdovjak — used “less lethal force” on Seabrooks, the Attorney General’s Office said.
At about 12:35 p.m., two officers on the ERT — Anzore Tsay and Jose Hernandez — fired their guns, striking Seabrooks, who was taken to St. Joseph's University Medical Center in Paterson, where he was pronounced dead at 12:51 p.m., state authorities said.
The city has placed those officers on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of the attorney general’s investigation, officials said.
Seabrooks became one of the Paterson Healing Collective’s clients in March 2021 when he was one of five victims in a non-fatal shooting on Carroll Street in Paterson’s troubled 4th Ward. Like other shooting victims, Seabrooks started participating in community events run by the Healing Collective and eventually joined the organization as an employee.
On the Monday before he was killed, Seabrooks was part of a Healing Collective team that traversed the sidewalks at dismissal time outside Paterson’s Eastside High School on the first day of classes after a student there was fatally stabbed outside the building.
His Healing Collective friends said Seabrooks attended a Paterson Police Department promotion ceremony on Feb. 23 in the same City Hall meeting room where two weeks later people would be demanding answers about his death. On Feb. 2, Seabrooks was among 18 young men and women celebrated by the Healing Collective for graduating from a leadership academy training program.
Formed in 2020, the Paterson Healing Collective works in partnership with St. Joseph’s hospital in an effort to curtail street violence by providing shooting victims with services and steering them away from retaliation. In January, federal and state officials announced that the Healing Collective would be getting two new $1 million grants to continue its work.
In 2021, Seabrooks was interviewed in a video by two NorthJersey.com photojournalists working on a project about the Healing Collective. He talked about getting into trouble in his early teens and being placed on probation before he righted himself, playing basketball and being part of a state championship team while he attended an alternative high school in Paterson. Seabrooks talked about how playing college basketball in California changed his life.
In that interview, Seabrooks expressed displeasure about his interactions with Paterson police detectives after he was shot in 2021. He said investigators were asking him questions about the crime while he was still bleeding from an open wound. Seabrooks said he filed an Internal Affairs complaint about the police conduct but never heard from anyone about his accusations against the cops.
Seabrooks told the photojournalists about his hopes for improving programs for Paterson’s children.
“It'd show kids you can have a good time coming outside without having to run and duck every time or go to a corner store,” Seabrooks said. “Everybody got to be supervised, I would say. So let's make it back into a good neighborhood, positive vibes, and everybody look out for one another sometimes, stuff like that, just try to bring back some love and energy into the story.”
Joe Malinconico is editor of Paterson Press.
This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Najee Seabrooks police shooting: Body camera videos released by NJ AG