The New Jersey Attorney General’s Office announced it has assumed control of the Paterson Police Department until new leadership can be installed, saying there is a “crisis of confidence” in the city’s law enforcement.
“People throughout Paterson deserve a public safety system that protects and serves all members of its community, just as the members of the Paterson Police Department deserve adequate resources, support, and innovation from their leadership,” Attorney General Matthew Platkin said in a release Monday.
The top prosecutor said the decision is due to “a number of events and concerns” related to the police department, but he didn’t mention a specific case.
Platkin appointed Isa Abbassi, a 25-year veteran of the New York Police Department, to lead the Paterson Police Department beginning in May.
The state takeover follows a call from nearly 50 state groups, including the ACLU New Jersey, for the US Justice Department to investigate Paterson police after the fatal police shooting of 31-year-old Najee Seabrooks earlier this month.
Seabrooks was apparently having a mental health crisis when he barricaded himself in a bathroom on March 3 and called police for help, according to a statement from the attorney general’s office. Family members told responding officers Seabrooks was hallucinating and behaving erratically, the statement said.
The family and police officers tried to talk him out of the bathroom, where Seabrooks had knives and told officers he had a fully loaded gun and was threatening to shoot police, the statement said.
In body camera footage, police can be seen pleading with Seabrooks to come out of the room and asking him to drop a knife.
The attorney general’s office says Seabrooks lunged at police with the knife and was shot and killed.
The case is under investigation, but New Jersey state law requires all officer-involved death investigations be brought before a grand jury, to determine whether the officers should be indicted.
“All I want is justice for my son,” said Melissa Carter, Seabrooks’ mother, at a news conference Monday, reports CNN affiliate WCBS.
Carter was one of the family members present when her son was killed.
“I can’t sleep at night. I can’t sleep. I can’t eat. It’s just painful, very painful. I won’t wish this on no mother,” Carter said.
In a letter to the Justice Department, the state groups accused Paterson police of having “a history of excessive force” and referenced Seabrooks’ death.
“A trend of widespread, unconstitutional (Paterson Police Department) misconduct is unmistakable – and has disproportionately impacted Black and Brown residents, depriving them of their civil rights,” the letter said.
In September two Paterson police officers were sentenced to prison after each pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy to violate individuals’ civil rights, using unreasonable and excessive force and filing a false police report, a release from the attorney general’s office said.
From October 2020 to February 2023, there were 736 use-of-force reports submitted by Paterson Police to the state attorney general, according to a database maintained by the attorney general’s office.
More than 55% of use-of-force reports in Paterson involved a Black person, though 23% of Paterson’s residents are Black, an analysis by NJ Spotlight News shows. Statewide, 45% of use-of-force reports involved a Black person, the analysis shows.
ACLU New Jersey’s executive director, Amol Sinha, called Platkin’s announcement a “welcome step” but stressed the importance of giving community leaders a chance to work with the attorney general’s office during this time.
“As we await next steps it is imperative that Paterson community leaders have a voice at the table,” Sinha, said in a statement Monday. “We hope that this process is a collaborative one that will help bring about trust and integrity to the Paterson Police Department, and safety from police violence for the people of Paterson. The community deserves nothing less.”
Paterson Police Chief Bert Ribeiro, who was sworn in the same day Seabrooks was shot, has stepped down, CNN affiliate WCBS reported.
Until Abbassi begins overseeing the police department in May, New Jersey State Police Major Fred Fife will act as interim officer-in-charge, the attorney general’s office said. Fife will be joined by State Police Captain Jafca Mandziuk, Assistant Attorney General Joseph Walsh and other public safety officials.
“Chief Abbassi is an experienced, proven leader who has built community trust and achieved excellence through his innovation at the highest levels of law enforcement in this country,” Platkin said in his office’s release. “I am grateful for his service and I look forward to working with him to ensure public safety in Paterson.
Platkin acknowledged that the change in leadership is just the first step in the long process of trying to regain public trust.
“It will not immediately restore public confidence that the police are committed to providing every resident of Paterson with fair, just, and effective public safety,” he said. “Nor will it address the concerns of officers asked to do a hard and dangerous job in a community that – after years of fiscal challenges and a revolving door of police leadership – has lost faith in its police department, making the jobs of those officers even more difficult.”
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy applauded Platkin’s announcement, calling the takeover a “bold action.”
“I am confident that his actions will ensure needed reform and give police officers in Paterson the resources, support, and training they need to serve their community,” Murphy said in a statement on Twitter.
The attorney general said he aims to provide officers with more adequate support, resources and supervision.
Platkin also announced a handful of new initiatives, including revising the state’s use of force policy and expanding an initiative that pairs crisis intervention-trained officers with mental health personnel on personal crisis calls.