Photo courtesy of NJ.com.

On January 12, 2024, The Seabrooks-Washington Community Response Act was signed into law, a bill that establishes a Community Crisis Response Advisory Council and a community crisis response teams pilot program. 

The law was signed by New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy and was named after Najee Seabrooks and Andrew Washington, two Black men who were shot and killed by policemen during mental health crises. 

“I am honored to sign the Seabrooks-Washington Community-Led Crisis Response Act to help those suffering from mental health crises,” said Governor Murphy in an official statement. “In times of need, we want to do everything we can to protect those in crisis and get them timely help and health.”

The law is taking place in a time where 90% of Americans believe the country is facing a mental health crisisThree years after the onset of the pandemic, 51% of adults say they have experienced a severe mental health crisis in their family.

Photo courtesy of Michael Karas / NorthJersey.com.

A report by Mental Health America – the leading national nonprofit dedicated to the promotion of mental health, well-being, and illness prevention – found that one-in-five adults in the U.S. experienced a mental illness in 2021 and over 16% of adults in NJ experienced a mental illness in 2019.  

Research shows these mental health conditions have been significantly exacerbated as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic — according to a report by KFF, an independent source for health policy research, polling and news. There were up to 27.7% of adults who reported symptoms of anxiety and depressive disorder in New Jersey due to psychological stressors like job loss, social isolation, fear of getting sick, or death of loved ones. This period also saw a sharp increase in substance use, substance-related deaths and suicide deaths. 

According to the report, negative mental health impacts were more pronounced among communities of color, young adults and children, rural communities and LGBTQ populations, as well as frontline workers and segments of the population that were most exposed to these factors. Before and during the pandemic, women were more likely to report symptoms of anxiety or depression. 

The new bill is part of a larger effort to acknowledge the intersection between race and mental health and a push to bring in more mental health specialists and reduce encounters between law enforcement and people suffering from mental health crises. 

According to a comprehensive database compiled by the Washington Post, 20% of people who were killed at the hands of the police since 2015 were experiencing a mental health crisis. The bill further found that those with untreated mental illness were 16 times more likely to be killed by a police officer and that 911 calls for mental health crises in New Jersey had increased substantially over the past few years. 

More broadly, Black people are reportedly 21 times more likely to be killed by a police officer than White males. According to the new bill, at least 86 people have been killed in fatal police encounters in New Jersey since 2015 – half of them are Black. 

Following the onset of the pandemic, the need for behavioral health services multiplied across the state, highlighting the insufficient services people most affected with mental health diagnoses face. 

Many policies and strategies were put in place as a result of these outcomes: telehealth services were expanded, the integration of mental health services in school-settings became a priority and a mental health crisis and suicide prevention hotline, 988, was launched in July 2022, providing access to a network of over 200 local and state funded crisis centers. 

A Behavioral Health Crisis Coordinating Office was established in December 2022 to identify best practices in mental health crisis responses and monitor the performance of the 988 lifeline in different communities. 

New Jersey’s Arrive Together initiative (Alternative Responses to Reduce Instances of Violence and Escalation) was launched in 2012 in Camden County which paired a mental health professional with a plainclothes police officer in crisis intervention. An analysis of the pilot program, which took place between December 2021 and January 2023, showed promising results with a low rate of arrests and use of force.

The new Seabrook-Washington Act, also titled Bill A-5326/S-4250 appropriates $12 million to support grant recipients from six eligible counties of the pilot program, including Hudson County. Its aim is to provide community-based organizations with the training and resources to operate crisis responses teams.

According to the bill, these community crisis response teams will provide “professional on-site community-based intervention such as outreach, de-escalation, stabilization, resource connection and follow-up support for individuals who are experiencing a behavioral health crisis.”

“The Seabrooks-Washington Community Led Crisis Response Act creates opportunities for de-escalation and community engagement as alternatives to traditional policing methods,” said Jennifer Sellitti, Public Defender Designate in the same statement. “Community-led teams focus on prevention by addressing the root cause of a crisis rather than simply reacting to it. By addressing underlying problems, we create safer and healthier communities.”

“The Seabrook-Washington Act emerges as a beacon of change,” said Pamela Johnson, Founder & Executive Director of the Anti-Violence Coalition Movement (J.C.A.C.M.). “This legislation echoes our mission as an anti-violence organization, empowering communities to intervene, prevent, and resolve conflicts peacefully. [It] is our collective response to historical trauma.”

Johnson believes the law represents a positive shift but that there also must be oversight and accountability. 

“Passing the law is one thing, however, in order to prevent violence of any kind in any crisis folks need to be properly trained and understand how to use that training to help the person in need,” adds Johnson.“Folks cannot be allowed to operate on their own accord.”

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