Najee Seabrooks was fatally shot by police while experiencing a mental health crisis on March 3, 2023.
The 31-year-old worked as a member of the violence intervention group, the Paterson Healing Collective, a hospital-based violence intervention program in Passaic county. Seabrooks called both the Paterson Police Department and PHS, whose staff were not allowed to deescalate the situation.
His community believes his death is yet another tragic case for community-based violence intervention. The ACLU-NJ “called for federal intervention, police discipline transparency, and legislative action.”
On March 27, the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office took control of the Paterson Police Department, relieving Chief Engelbert Ribeiro of command. Ribeiro had been on the job for less than a month. “There is a crisis of confidence in law enforcement in this city,” Attorney General Matthew Platkin said.
The same day, Faith in Passaic County, a local chapter of Faith in New Jersey, addressed a letter to Paterson Mayor Andre Sayegh and members of the Paterson City Council with faith leaders expressing both their grief and disappointment over the loss of Seabrooks.
In addition, the New Jersey Violence Intervention and Prevention Coalition and a member organization, Faith in New Jersey, are calling on clergy to join them on the frontlines to reduce violence and to establish community-based responses to violence that do not rely entirely on police.
A Newark native who has long been connected to activism, Will Simpson is the director of Violence Reduction Initiatives at Equal Justice USA and coordinator for the New Jersey Violence Intervention and Prevention Coalition.
After being “exposed to what we now called community-based violence intervention or community-based public safety models” in 2016, Simpson seeks to build “ecosystems of safety.”
“What does it look like to build community- based systems that really enhance opportunities for healing and really bring a holistic understanding of safety?” Simpson asked during our interview.
His answer is a “Trauma to Trust” workshop, offered to the community and law enforcement “to understand the historical underpinnings of policing” — from slavery to mass incarceration. Simpson said trauma impacts everyone — not just the community members but police officers.
“Cops are traumatized too and that system that we all want to be responsible for creating safety isn’t doing that for their own law enforcement. They’re not providing the healing for them to do their job as well,” he continued.
After participants have worked through the trauma and gained a common understanding of what it means, Simpson said that both groups can begin to imagine: “What does it look like for us to build communities that center this safety but a safety that is not just the absence of violence but the presence of well-being?”
But that’s just one component of the work. There are also conversations around policy, and the Newark Community Street Team hosts a bi-weekly public safety roundtable that Simpson co-facilitated for six years.
Simpson said this is a part of engaging the community in a broader dialogue: “What [does] safety really look like and how do we build community with each other to enhance everything that people are doing on the ground?”
He pointed out that the work has traditionally been done in silos.
“When we talked about safety, it was always the police’s responsibility,” Simpson explained. “But I think what we’ve seen in places like Newark and other cities around the country is that when you begin to decenter law enforcement from the safety conversation and really center community, you begin to see these flourishing ecosystems begin to thrive, grow and you start to see the impact on the ground. You start to see relationships and ties within [the] community start to strengthen.”
Simpson shared that Equal Justice USA also works to repeal the death penalty and to support survivors of violence, ensuring that they receive equitable financial support from the state. He describes these as the organization’s “first footsteps in Newark.”
The next steps are to engage locally in other cities to “build the culture around safety, healing (and) accountability” as well as “state coalition work [to ensure] that there are opportunities to fund this work, where dollars actually get the ground, to the people that are doing the work. And then federally, how does our federal government really begin to shift how they fund safety?”
Simpson hopes to shift ideas around safety and the solutions for communities that have been harmed by systems. When asked what keeps him grounded, he immediately responded, “My wife, Ashley,” a kindergarten teacher.
Simpson also shared that his mother is a social worker, and his father was a corrections officer, which provided “two juxtaposed kinds of approaches to how we do healing work, how we do safety work.”
“That gave me a different perspective on what possibilities could be, but I also saw how much trauma he went through,” he said.
“For so many families that have folks that either work for the system or are in community, it has just been abundantly clear to me that our systems aren’t doing what they need to do to really build whole, thriving, safe communities,” Simpson said. “And I think that’s why it’s so important for communities to be really centered in these conversations — because those closest to the harm need to be closest to the solutions.”
Editor’s note: This article is the first of a two-part series. Part two is available here.