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NJ lawmakers OK program for mental health teams to avoid deadly police shootings

New Jersey lawmakers have passed legislation to fund community crisis teams in several cities around the state — providing an alternative to police-led response when someone suffering a mental health episode calls for help.

The bill, known as the “Seabrooks-Washington Community-Led Crisis Response Act,” passed the state Senate by a vote of 21-14 on Monday, the last day of the legislative session, and had previously passed the Assembly. It was then headed to Gov. Phil Murphy’s desk for his signature.

“It’s a big deal. [Community-led crisis response groups] would be responding as an alternative to police response for nonviolent substance use and behavioral health calls,” said Racquel Romans-Henry, policy director for the Salvation and Social Justice, a faith-based racial justice advocacy group that supported the bill. “So, big deal, big deal in terms of public safety and mental health responses in the state.”

If Murphy signs it, the legislation will allocate $12 million to yet-to-be-selected community-based organizations for a pilot program in six New Jersey counties. The groups selected will be tasked with developing a model for how the responders will operate.

Romans-Henry noted that the legislation also calls for the program to support existing crisis intervention programs happening in cities including Paterson and Trenton.

The act is named for two Black New Jerseyans killed by police during mental health episodes.

In March 2023, 31-year-old Najee Seabrooks barricaded himself inside his Paterson home and called 911. When police arrived, he locked himself in the bathroom and claimed to have knives and a gun, authorities have said. In video footage released by the state Attorney General’s Office, an officer is seen pleading with Seabrooks to come out with his hands up, and Seabrooks eventually runs out of the bathroom. The Attorney General’s Office has said Seabrooks “lunged toward the officers with a knife in his hand,” and then two officers fired their weapons at him.

Seabrooks had been a part of a local violence interruption group, Paterson Healing Collective. Members of the group have said that when they arrived at Seabrooks’ home they weren’t allowed to enter or speak with him.

In August 2023, family members of 52-year-old James Washington called for medical services in Jersey City, after he began acting erratically. After first-responders couldn’t get Washington — whose family said he had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder — to open his apartment door, they called the Jersey City police for assistance. Police shot and killed Washington after breaking down his door. Mayor Steven Fulop has defended the officers’ actions, saying Washington ran at the officers with a knife.

Zellie Thomas from Black Lives Matter Paterson, who knew Seabrooks, said he had a passion for his social justice work and for the city.

“I knew the change that he wanted for the city. So it’s a shame that he couldn’t change the city when he was alive. But I think that this bill is going to be one of the ways that he can still change the city, even in death,” he said.

On the first page of the bill, lawmakers noted New Jersey’s system of policing has “staggering racial disparities.” Since 2015, at least 86 members of the public have died from fatal police encounters, and 48% of them were Black, even though Black people make up only 15% of the state population, according to the bill.

The bill does not specify how the community groups will function alongside law enforcement, or what type of distress calls the groups will respond to. Groups looking to be included in the program would lay out those details in their proposals.

“Part of it being a pilot program is … the money’s going to be given to organizations in these different cities, and then they’re going to have to try to find a model that works for their city,” said Yannick Wood, director of the criminal justice reform program for the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, another advocacy group that supported the bill.

The legislation also doesn’t say how the groups will interact with the attorney general’s Arrive Together program, which pairs mental health professionals with police in several communities statewide, to respond to mental health calls for help. But advocates hope that the community-led response groups can serve as a complement to that initiative.

“What we’re trying to do is we’re trying to create an ecosystem where there’s a variety of options,” Wood said.

The attorney general will be a member of an advisory council that the groups will occasionally report to during the pilot program. The Attorney General’s Office declined to comment following the passage of the bill in the Senate on Monday.

Various non-police response programs for mental health crises have been established around the country. In Eugene, Oregon, the CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets) program has existed for more than 30 years. According to data from the program, in 2019, CAHOOTS responded to 24,000 calls and only needed to call for police backup for 150 of those calls, or less than 1%.

Advocates for the Seabrooks-Washington Act cited it as a potential model for New Jersey cities to follow.

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