Tuesday, 21 May 2024

N.J. Attorney General Seizes Control of Paterson Police Department

Three weeks after a deadly police shooting in Paterson, N.J., the state’s attorney general, Matthew J. Platkin, announced on Monday that his office would take over day-to-day operations of the city’s troubled police department.

The new state oversight in New Jersey’s third-largest city comes after civil rights activists sent a letter to the U.S. Justice Department, asking federal officials to begin an investigation into “unlawful and unconstitutional conduct” within the Paterson Police Department.

The takeover is effective immediately. Beginning in May, Isa M. Abbassi, a chief with the New York Police Department who held leadership positions in the aftermath of the fatal police killing of Eric Garner on Staten Island, will take control of the department, Mr. Platkin said.

“There is a crisis of confidence in law enforcement in this city,” Mr. Platkin said during a news conference in Paterson. “Under these circumstances, I cannot deliver on my duty to protect the people of Paterson and to keep officers safe who are sworn to protect them.”

On March 3, Najee Seabrooks, 31, was shot and killed as he moved toward the police while holding knives after an hourslong interaction with law enforcement officers, who had been trying to coax him to leave a locked bathroom in his brother’s apartment. Mr. Seabrooks, who worked as an anti-violence counselor with the Paterson Healing Collective, repeatedly said he intended to kill himself and suggested to the police that he would not be the only person to die, according to footage from police body-worn cameras.

He also sent messages to colleagues at the collective, asking them to come and help, but the police did not permit them to intervene. Mental health counselors from a nearby hospital, St. Joseph’s University Medical Center, also were not called during the nearly five-hour standoff — a decision the hospital’s president criticized in a strongly worded statement.

Mr. Seabrooks’s death touched off several large community protests as residents demanded answers, and accountability.

Last month, a Paterson police officer was charged with aggravated assault and official misconduct after shooting a man in the back while responding to sounds of gunfire. The shooting left the man, Khalif Cooper, paralyzed. In 2021, Thelonious McKnight Jr. was shot and killed by a police officer; a gun was found near Mr. McKnight, according to the attorney general’s office, but activists have questioned whether he was armed when he was shot.

In the past several years, six Paterson officers have also been convicted of stealing cash and other items from residents who were searched illegally, in violation of federal civil rights laws.

Major Frederick P. Fife of the New Jersey State Police, a former special agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, assumed operational control of the Paterson Police Department on Monday morning, Mr. Platkin said.

Mr. Platkin said that the state’s use of force policy would also be updated to provide guidance on how law enforcement officials should handle crises involving people barricaded alone behind locked doors.

“We’re here for the long haul,” Mr. Platkin said about the city of Paterson. “I don’t care how long it takes.”

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