Bre Azañedo of Black Lives Matter-Paterson testifies before the Assembly’s law committee on May 18, 2023, in support of a bill that would fund community-based crisis response teams. Jim Sullivan of the ACLU-NJ, left, and Marleina Ubel of New Jersey Policy Perspective, right, also testified in support. (Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)
For lawmakers mulling why they should fund community-based teams to respond to emergency calls about people in mental health crisis, Brady Rivera has five reasons — Najee Seabrooks, Gulia Dale III, Hasani Best, Bernard Placide, and Amir Johnson.
The five men were in mental crisis when New Jersey police officers, called to help, instead gunned them down.
Rivera was one of a parade of advocates who testified before the Assembly’s public safety committee Thursday in Trenton to support legislation that would allocate $10 million to fund the work of community crisis response teams, whose members are trained to defuse emergencies involving people in mental crisis and connect them with care.
Assembly members William Spearman (D-Camden), Shavonda Sumter (D-Passaic), and Verlina Reynolds-Jackson (D-Mercer) introduced the bill in March, two weeks after Paterson police killed Seabrooks, who worked for the Paterson Healing Collective.
Seabrooks was in mental crisis when he called police for help March 3. Members of the collective, a community crisis response team, asked to help police but officers barred them from the scene.
Rivera of Our Revolution Trenton Mercer told legislators that they have “an obligation to do the right thing, whether that be ethical or moral, an obligation to good governance, or just the obligation to ensure that when our neighbors call for help, they don’t end up dead.”
“The key to the success of these groups is that they’re not law enforcement. They are trusted messengers, community-led, community-staffed, community-supported,” Rivera testified. “Rather than responding to every problem with an aggressive, escalatory, and violent assertion of power and privilege, these groups respond with compassion, empathy, care, and love. It is those values, those behaviors, and those individuals that this bill needs to support, fund, and spread throughout our state.”
Under the bill, the state Department of Health would form a pilot program to distribute $2 million grants to fund the work of community-based crisis response teams in Camden, Essex, Mercer, Middlesex, and Passaic counties. The bill also would create an advisory council.
Bre Azañedo of Black Lives Matter-Paterson told lawmakers that residents who know the community because they’re from there can best handle community crises.
“It has been proven time and time again that when Black and Brown people call the police, we are putting ourselves at risk,” Azañedo said.
Jim Sullivan, deputy policy director at the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, shared the grim statistics that more than 1,200 people were killed by police nationally last year, and another 300 so far this year.
“Alarming statistics like this call for transformational change in the way we handle mental health crises in New Jersey,” Sullivan said. “And this bill does just that. This pilot program will begin to treat mental health crises as a public health issue, rather than leaving it to the criminal legal system that is not designed to properly handle mental health crises.”
Assemblyman Erik Peterson (R-Hunterdon) questioned who would decide whether to send community crisis response teams and whether they’d respond with or without police.
“It’s hard over a telephone to know what that situation is. How do you know if somebody’s armed or not armed? How do you know if somebody is going to escalate to another level? How is that determined, and who’s going to determine that?” Peterson said. “Because my guess is that if person makes a mistake, that they’re going to be on the hot seat for making the wrong call. And is there any indemnity to them for making that decision?”
Spearman, one of the bill’s sponsors and the committee’s chair, said the advisory council would create a “dispatch model.”
The Rev. Charles Boyer, founding director of Salvation and Social Justice, told lawmakers: “We don’t have all the answers, but when we have the will, we’ll figure it out.”
Most calls to police are about nonviolent matters and don’t require someone with a gun, Boyer added. Communities want to and should be able to take responsibility for themselves, he said.
“The argument has been with crime in our communities: Why doesn’t the community stand up? Why don’t people take personal responsibility?” he said. “Here is a situation where the community is crying to take responsibility for itself. And so what reason would we ever have across political spectrums to keep people from having the resources to take responsibility and ownership of their own communities?”
Committee members, except Peterson, agreed to advance the bill. It has no Senate companion.
In other business, the committee also advanced another bill that Spearman described as “linked” to the community crisis response team legislation. That bill would appropriate $3 million to fund mental health services for law enforcement.
“Our police officers are under stress, a lot of stress, all the time. And unfortunately, if we don’t get them help, it can lead to suicide, it can lead to abuse of the community, it can lead to abuse of their families,” said Spearman, who also sponsored that bill. “It’s important for the community leaders to understand that we have to approach this problem from both sides. We have to get help for the officers, because we don’t want an officer in crisis with a badge and a gun on the street. We want them getting help so that they are benefit to the community, not a threat to the community.”
That bill’s Senate version is stalled in that body’s law and public safety committee.
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