New Jersey Set to Create Non-Police Mental Health Crisis Response Teams

    A New Jersey bill would create non-police emergency response teams in cities, enabling social workers, rather than law enforcement, to respond to people experiencing mental health crises. This could reduce the potential for police violence that has disproportionately targeted Black and Brown people in the Garden State.

    After passing the legislature, the bill now sits with Governor Phil Murphy (D). If he signs it, details will need to be confirmed about which cities will participate, and how its funding will be used.

    The Seabrooks-Washington Community-Led Crisis Response Act (Senate Bill 4250) is named for two Black New Jersey residents who were shot and killed by police in 2023 following mental health-related 911 calls: 31-year old Najee Seabrooks of Paterson, and 52-year old Andrew Jerome Washington of Jersey City. Seabrooks was himself active in his community as a violence interrupter—before he was shot, his own colleagues from the Paterson Healing Collective came to the house to try to diffuse the situation, but were blocked by police.

    The teams would provide professional “outreach, de-escalation, stabilization, resource connection, and follow-up support” for people experiencing crises.

    The bill passed the New Jersey Assembly back in June 2023, but stalled for nearly half a year in the Senate before it was finally approved on January 8, the last day of legislative business, by a 21-14 vote. It now needs Gov. Murphy’s signature to become law.

    The bill creates a “Community Crisis Response Advisory Council,” and a pilot program for municipalities and community groups to develop “community crisis response teams.” It would be limited to Camden, Essex, Hudson, Mercer, Middlesex and Passaic Counties, which include New Jersey’s biggest cities and urban areas.

    The teams would need to provide professional “outreach, de-escalation, stabilization, resource connection, and follow-up support” for people experiencing crises around mental health and/or substance use, and to include certified peer counselors as much as possible.

    Total funding of $12 million would provided under the bill, and the attorney general’s office would create a grant program to award up to $2 million to each eligible applicant. Applicants would be required to “demonstrate an established relationship” with one of New Jersey’s authorized harm reduction services, which Gov. Murphy has expanded since taking office. Also, a currently operating violence-interruption street team is prioritized to receive grant awards.

    This funding is very little in the wider context. “Part of the case made by advocates in support of this bill was this very point,” Racquel Romans-Henry, director of policy at Salvation and Social Justice, which has advocated for the leglislation, told Filter.

    A $2 million grant, she noted, “would be a proverbial drop in the bucket as compared to the money allocated to police in local and state budgets, however it has the potential to yield significant returns for the state. Despite the modest budgets of our existing community-led crisis response teams operating in cities like Trenton, Paterson and Newark, we have seen evidence that demonstrates the effectiveness of the violence interruption work that they have committed to.”

    After three years, the advisory council would have to report to the governor and legislature on the outcomes of the pilot, and recommend whether and how to continue it.

    “They’re already operating in the community …This could be an extension to their work.”

    The bill’s approach is to encourage groups already involved in their communities to apply for the money to create the response teams. Yannick Wood, director of the Criminal Justice Reform Program at New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, explained how organizations like Paterson Healing Collective are best qualified to do this.

    “[It] employs people who have been victimized by gun violence, survivors, people who are credible messengers in their communities who can draw from their real-life experience and use that to help prevent people from entering the cycle of violence after being targeted by gun violence,” he told Filter. “They’re already operating in the community … This could be an extension to their work.”

    Zellie Imani, an organizer with Black Lives Matter Paterson, knew Seabrooks personally and worked with his organization before his death. Black Lives Matter Paterson launched a local harm reduction outreach program, active four days a week, to spread supplies like sterile syringes and naloxone to people most at risk.

    Imani and other advocates in Paterson have for years been discussing the need for non-police responses to residents’ crises around mental health and substance use, recognizing that communities needed more resources rather than more police. After Seabrooks was killed, many more Paterson residents saw this logic, Imani believes. He added that it’s important to continue empowering community violence interruption work, saying that its effectiveness requires time and patience.

    “The impact is not something that can be done in a few months,” Imani told Filter. “It takes a year or two to develop relationships with young people who have often been screwed over by institutions and other community groups. By building relationships since they have started they have taken young people under their wings, mentored them, showed them, ‘We know there was a shooting on your block, you don’t have to escalate it, you don’t have to retaliate, let’s figure out a way where we can resolve this’ … That is how we solve gun violence in our city.”

    Mental health emergencies often result in police killings, other forms of violence or harassment, when people need care, not handcuffs or tasers. Other jurisdictions have launched programs in recognition of this.

    One of the longest-established is called CAHOOTS, in Eugene, Oregon, which began work in 1989. Research on the CAHOOTS program indicates that of 24,000 calls the crisis response team answered in 2019, police backup was requested in just 311 cases.

    More recently, in the wake of the 2020 racial justice protests following the police murder of George Floyd, dozens of cities nationwide have taken steps to create non-police response teams. Denver launched its “STAR” program, operated by a two-person clinical team in a van. In its first six months, it successfully redirected nearly 750 emergency calls—none involved police or ended with an arrest.

    “There are vast disparities between investment in community-based services and other things that contribute to public safety in a holistic way, and that made in police departments.”

    State governments, for example in New York, have also considered proposals to expand such programs to more cities. But the scale of their success is likely to depend on governments’ willingness to provide more money, when programs currently receive only a tiny fraction of the corresponding police budget—a disparity not lost on observers in New Jersey.

    “We would love to see [funding] increased in the future,” Marleina Ubel, senior policy analyst at New Jersey Policy Perspective, told Filter. “There are vast disparities between investment in community-based services, mental health and other things that contribute to public safety in a holistic way, and that made in police departments. I do think this amount of money is a great start.”

    Gov. Murphy has yet to make any statements about whether he supports the bill. But the fact that it doesn’t take any money away from police budgets should reduce the chance of last-minute opposition from the police lobby.

    “I don’t anticipate [law enforcement] will have any issues with it because this is something I would expect them to support,” Ubel said. “They are not trained mental health professionals, most people agree they have taken on way too many jobs. This is an opportunity for communities to receive support and take things away from law enforcement they probably don’t want to be responsible for.”


    Photograph by cottonbro studio via Pexels

    • Alexander is Filter’s staff writer. He writes about the movement to end the War on Drugs. He grew up in New Jersey and swears it’s actually alright. He’s also a musician hoping to change the world through the power of ledger lines and legislation. Alexander was previously Filter‘s editorial fellow.

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