PATERSON, N.J. — New Jersey's attorney general said Monday that his office has taken control of the police department in the state's third-largest city, Paterson, less than a month after officers there fatally shot a well-known crisis intervention worker during a tense standoff.
Attorney General Matt Platkin said at a news conference that his office had assumed control of all police functions without delay, including the division that investigates internal police matters. His announcement didn't mention the shooting of 31-year-old Najee Seabrooks directly, but it reflected activists' concerns about how the department was being run.
“There is a crisis of confidence in law enforcement in this city,” he said. “Something has to change and it will change starting now. Earlier this morning I exercised my authority as attorney general and superseded the Paterson police department.”
Cheers from people in the audience erupted briefly, as well as calls of “thank you.” Platkin said the takeover amounted to a “pledge” to residents and officers that the state is committed to safety in the city.
Isa Abbassi, a 25-year veteran of the New York Police Department currently serving as the chief of strategic initiatives there, will take charge of Paterson's police department in May, Platkin said. In the meantime, a New Jersey State Police officer will serve as the interim head of the department.
It isn't clear how long the takeover will last. Platkin said he's “in for the long haul.”
Paterson, a city of more than 150,000, is 20 miles (32 kilometers) northwest of New York.
Platkin didn’t specify what behavior led to the takeover, but his office had been involved in a handful of investigations in the city.
In February, Platkin announced an aggravated assault charge against a Paterson officer he said was responsible for shooting an unarmed fleeing man. In December, a grand jury declined to indict Paterson police officers involved in the death of a man whom they restrained in October 2022.
The U.S. Department of Justice has the power to sue police departments where there has been an established pattern of unlawful behavior, corruption or unconstitutional policing practices, and issue legally binding consent decrees to require changes in those practices.
The department recently issued a report that will lead to a consent decree in Louisville, and in New Jersey has put the Newark police department under federal supervision.
But state actions against local departments are more rare because of local control often built into state constitutions
Paterson is the latest — and largest — department taken over by New Jersey’s attorney general in recent years. Among the others are the 11-officer Lavallette department, as well as three others in Union County.
In addition to the takeover, Platkin said he's implementing a handful of other changes. They include a program that pairs a police officer with a mental health screener in an unmarked vehicle to respond to 911 calls about mental or behavioral health issues.
He also said the state will revamp its protocols statewide for dealing with people who have barricaded themselves in a room or building — as Seabrooks had done for more than five hours before he was killed. Platkin also formed a “working group” to study and make recommendations on interactions between police officers and violence intervention officers.
The standoff started about 8 a.m. March 3 when police were called to Seabrooks’ brother’s apartment where he had been holed up in the bathroom. Seabrooks, who was a crisis intervention worker and mentor with the nonprofit Paterson Healing Collective, had called 911 at least seven times and told dispatchers that people were threatening him and he needed immediate help.
Police arrived soon after and talked to him through the door, offering to get him water and calling him “love” in one instance. But the tension increased when he told police he was armed with a “pocket rocket” gun and a knife.
Police shot Seabrooks when he emerged from the bathroom with a knife, according to the attorney general’s office.
His death shook his co-workers, who were at the scene and texting with him, Seabrooks’ boss at the Paterson Healing Collective Liza Chowdhury said. She said Seabrooks had been texting with colleagues, asking to see them, but that police blocked the co-workers from entering the apartment.
Chowdhury said Monday that she appreciated Platkin's decision, but she called on him to fire the officers involved in the shooting as well.
In the weeks since his death, anti-violence advocates organized a vigil calling for a number of reforms, including the creation of a civilian review board. The New Jersey Institute for Social Justice has called on the Justice Department to investigate the city’s police department, and the ACLU of New Jersey said the shooting shows the need to invest in non-law enforcement responses to mental health calls.
Associated Press writer Claudia Lauer contributed to this article.
Mike Catalini, The Associated Press