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He didn’t trust police but sought their help anyway. Two days later, he was dead

PATERSON, N.J. (AP) — Jameek Lowery entered the dimly lit lobby of the city’s police headquarters in a panic. He was having a mental breakdown — and needed help.

Barefoot and wearing only pajama pants and a sweatshirt in the pre-dawn hours of Jan. 5, 2019, Lowery pulled out his cellphone and began a social media broadcast of an anti-police rant.

“Why y’all trying to kill me?” Lowery asked several Paterson police officers on his Facebook Live video feed. “If I’m dead in the next hour or two, they did it.”

As Lowery sounded off, police stood back and summoned an ambulance to take the 27-year-old Black man to the hospital. What happened in the ambulance remains a flashpoint in the Black community’s deteriorating relationship with the city’s 400-plus-member police department, an agency so troubled and distrusted that state officials last year took it over.

Lowery arrived unconscious at St. Joseph’s University Medical Center handcuffed to a gurney and died two days later. Officials would later say that officers forcefully restrained and punched Lowery when he kicked and struck them. His sister and activists believe that police acted with excessive force because of his race.

Lowery was among more than 330 Black people who died after police stopped them with tactics that aren’t supposed to be deadly, like physical restraint and use of stun guns, The Associated Press found. Black people of non-Hispanic descent accounted for about a third of the 1,036 deaths that AP catalogued across the nation, despite representing just 12% of the population.

The investigation into a decade of such deaths, led by AP in collaboration with FRONTLINE (PBS) and the Howard Centers for Investigative Journalism, comes as studies by criminologists and public-health researchers have repeatedly demonstrated that Black people endure discrimination in all aspects of the criminal justice system, accounting for high rates of unjustified police stops, arrests, uses of force and incarceration.

Lowery’s case also highlights how hard it can be for families to hold officers accountable and to pry loose information about encounters where officers use body blows and other types of force that are easier to obscure than a shooting.

Due to weak public information laws and other restrictions, it can be difficult to find out what happened in such incidents. Officials in New Jersey, like those in some other states, inconsistently release information about deaths related to police action. In Lowery’s case, AP obtained an autopsy report, a prosecutor’s statement, police reports and a 10-page report prepared by an expert hired by the family that offers considerable new detail not yet made public about police actions in the ambulance.

The high-profile fatalities of George Floyd, Freddie Gray and Eric Garner sparked nationwide protests over the use of force and a reckoning over police interactions with people of color. Advocates in Paterson had hoped Lowery’s death would provide a similar catalyst to reform the city’s police force. But five years later they say they remain disappointed.

“It’s kind of inconceivable to think that a person would go to an agency — in this day and time anyway — for help, and end up being dead shortly after,” said Casey Melvin, a community activist who works with an anti-violence program.

Paterson’s racial unrest

New Jersey’s third-largest city, Paterson has a population of nearly 160,000 and sits about 20 miles northwest of Manhattan. Like many other industrial cities, its demographics have shifted since the middle of last century when the vast majority of its residents were white. Today, Black residents account for nearly 24% and Hispanics just over 60% of the population.

As Paterson’s Black population grew, it found itself repeatedly clashing with the city’s white power structure, particularly its police force.

In the mid-1960s, Paterson was the site of civil unrest between police and Black residents. Paterson was also the inspiration for the 1975 Bob Dylan song “Hurricane,” about the boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, a Black man who was convicted by an all-white jury in 1967 of killing three white people at a city bar. A federal judge later threw out the conviction, writing that it had been “predicated upon an appeal to racism rather than reason.”

In subsequent decades, tensions between the city’s Black residents and police have flared again and again. A few years ago, the force came under withering criticism for allowing a rogue group of officers to form a “robbery squad” that for three years beat residents and stole their money.

Since the start of 2019, city police have fatally shot four people; two others, including Lowery, have died after being restrained.

Many Black residents learned at an early age to look over their shoulders for police, said Ernest Rucker, a community activist.

“At 8 years old, because of the color of my skin, I would be stopped by law enforcement because I crossed the wrong street,” he said. “That type of treatment especially at that young age would always have you mistrust the police, not like the police — hate the police — to a great degree.”

This was Jameek Lowery’s hometown. One of 17 children, he was raised by his mother and stepfather in a series of crowded houses in Paterson’s Fourth Ward. The family moved a lot during his childhood.

Relatives said Lowery enjoyed school, especially music. His stepfather was a DJ, and as a kid, Lowery loved dancing and singing to Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.” As he grew, he loved ’90s R&B and wanted to be a singer like Usher.

Life was not easy for Lowery. He was diagnosed as a child with bipolar disorder, a mental health condition that resulted in extreme mood swings. As long as he took his medication and regularly saw his doctors, he was fine, said Shavontay McFadden, an older sister.

As an adult, he used and sold illicit drugs, leading in 2013 to a drug distribution conviction and three-year probation sentence. During a jail stay in 2016, Lowery banged his head against a cell’s wall and was sent to a medical center for mental health treatment. By late 2018, Lowery was unemployed — and his mother was managing his Social Security disability income.

At that point, Lowery decided he wanted to move with his three children to North Carolina. He explained to friends and family members he wanted to be closer to his mother in Virginia. But he also said he was tired of the Paterson police, of being worried he was going to be arrested or hassled.

He sent relatives strings of texts and left them messages that complained “certain cops were harassing him,” said his sister, Jamilyha Lowery. “He said they were going to hurt him.”

His family had no reason to doubt him. But it was not always easy to separate his real-life concerns from his growing paranoia.

He was increasingly hallucinating and acting paranoid, they said. Lowery believed that people were out to get him. He imagined he had become an FBI informant providing tips about corrupt and violent police officers, Jamilyha Lowery said, although there is no evidence that he called the FBI.

It was in this state of mind that he called 911 for help on a dreary and chilly January Saturday.

‘Help me’

Just after 2:40 a.m. on Jan. 5, 2019, Lowery told a 911 dispatcher that he had taken “ecstasy and was paranoid.” Paramedics took him for observation to St. Joseph’s University Medical Center.

After Lowery was examined and discharged, he jumped on furniture in the hospital lobby, causing a commotion, officials said. Hospital security staff escorted him to a taxi that had brought a friend to take him home. When the cab stopped at a red light in downtown Paterson, Lowery leapt out of an open window and ran toward city police headquarters.

At 3:45 a.m., Lowery opened the front door and walked barefoot into the lobby. He began broadcasting on Facebook Live. When he looked into the camera, he was sweating. Spit had gathered in the corners of his mouth. He sounded desperate, at times breathless.

As he rambled about threats and dangers, he asked police again and again to “help me.”

When the ambulance called by police arrived, Lowery at first said he didn’t want to get into it and return to the hospital, but changed his mind. By the time he got to the hospital, he was fighting for his life. He never regained consciousness.

Lowery’s relatives only learned he was at St. Joseph’s after coming across his archived livestream and calling local hospitals.

“He always said his safe haven is a hospital,” Jamilyha Lowery said.

They raced to his bedside and were aghast at what they found — he was unrecognizable. His face seemed bruised and swollen. Dried blood and fluids crusted his eyes, nose and face. Doctors told them he had gone into cardiac arrest, his sister said, and his brain and organs had gone without oxygen for quite some time.

Lowery died on Jan. 7.

‘Not the result of force’

In the days after his death, the video of his encounter with police went viral. Black residents, in particular, pointed to his eerie foreshadowing of his death, and noted he had been talking and his face looked untouched before he got into the ambulance.

Convinced police must have done something to end Lowery’s life, hundreds of protesters descended on City Hall. Their signs read “Justice for Jameek Lowery,” and they chanted, “We want answers!”

As community pressure built, Mayor Andre Sayegh suggested Lowery had died from the infectious disease meningitis, not police force.

Passaic County Prosecutor Camelia Valdes investigated the death. In August 2019, she reported that police and fire personnel escorted Lowery from police headquarters to a waiting ambulance. Once inside, police restrained Lowery when he became “physically combative.” She didn’t elaborate on what exactly he had done but said the force required “compliance holds” in which officers held down Lowery. Officers also struck him with their fists, she said.

Valdes cited a ruling by the state medical examiner — which was also obtained by AP — that said Lowery’s death had been a cardiac arrest while under the influence of bath salts, a psychoactive stimulant.

“The investigation has concluded that Mr. Lowery’s death was a medical event and not the result of police use of force,” Valdes wrote in a press release. That was similar to how a Minneapolis prosecutor had initially characterized George Floyd’s death in 2020, alleging he had succumbed to underlying health conditions and drug use, not police force.

Valdes, the Paterson Police Department and attorneys for two of three officers involved did not respond to a request for comment. The officers’ attorneys either declined to comment or did not respond to interview requests. In court papers, the attorneys argued the officers had acted appropriately and within the scope of their duties.

Family’s investigation

Activists and family members did not buy the official explanation. Worn down by decades of racist policing in Paterson, they believed police felt they could act with impunity because Lowery was Black.

Shaquana Duncan, the mother of one of Lowery’s children, sued the city and three police officers, alleging police had used excessive force on someone who was “unarmed and posed no danger.”

Her attorneys obtained police reports and other documents not available publicly that they say call into question the county prosecutor’s conclusions. They hired Dr. Michael Baden, a former chief medical examiner for New York City who also conducted the second autopsy on George Floyd, to review the documents and perform a second autopsy on Lowery. Relying on his own autopsy, the state’s autopsy, X-rays, medical records, police reports and interviews of officers by investigators, Baden produced a detailed report that has not before been made public.

Due to New Jersey’s public disclosure laws, AP was not able to obtain documents cited by Baden other than the state autopsy and two police reports filed as exhibits in the federal lawsuit. To reconstruct what happened in the ambulance, AP relied upon those records and the county prosecutor’s statement:

The trouble started when Lowery changed his mind about going back to St. Joseph’s because he told officers, “you guys are gonna kill me there.”

Concerned Lowery might pose a threat to himself or others, two officers restrained him and tried to strap him to the gurney inside the ambulance, according to police reports. As they did, an officer wrote, Lowery kicked an officer in the groin and punched two others in the face.

Officer Mucio Lucero told investigators he punched Lowery two or three times in the rib cage in response to the man’s behavior, according to Baden’s report. Baden added that Officer Kyle Wanamaker said he hit Lowery in the face “more than once.”

Baden wrote that an emergency medical technician told investigators an officer placed Lowery’s sweatshirt over his mouth to stop the man from spitting on them. Officers managed to handcuff Lowery to the gurney by holding down his wrists, arms and legs. Wanamaker and Officer Michael Avila rode in the ambulance with Lowery to St. Joseph’s.

In his report, Baden wrote that his own autopsy revealed Lowery had suffered “traumatic blunt force” injuries to his face, jaw, arm and chest and found evidence of “compressive choking.” Further, while the county prosecutor had said publicly that Lowery had no broken bones, Baden wrote that X-rays taken before the state autopsy revealed “multiple fresh traumatic fractures” of fingers on Lowery’s left hand.

Baden also noted that hospital records showed Lowery was bleeding from his nose and mouth upon arrival, and his face was bruised. Baden added that a hospital chart stated there was “a question of possible assault.”

Baden wrote that lab tests showed only recreational levels of bath salts in Lowery’s blood, enough to cause bizarre behavior but not to stop his heart. Baden concluded that Lowery died from cardiac arrest and kidney failure from being restrained and beaten by police.

The death wasn’t accidental, Baden wrote. It was homicide.

Reform?

Under pressure from the community, Paterson’s mayor announced in 2019 he was launching an outside audit of the police department.

The audit by the Police Executive Research Forum — a respected law enforcement training nonprofit — found the community distrusted the police and called on the Paterson Police Department to update its use-of-force policies and improve oversight of officers.

Researchers identified at least 602 use-of-force incidents from 2018 to 2020. Black people accounted for 57% of the residents whose race was known in those incidents, even though they only represented only about a quarter of Paterson’s population.

The most common types of force involved tactics that were not supposed to be lethal, like holds, blows and pepper spray, according to the audit published in 2022.

There was no indication that supervisors investigated such incidents beyond affixing signatures on use-of-force reports submitted by officers, the audit found. Of the 73 excessive force complaints filed during the three-year period, only one was sustained by the department.

The audit found that the force was fairly diverse but its supervisors were mostly white men. As recently as 2022, state statistics show, about a third of Paterson officers were white, while just 11% were Black. Hispanic officers made up more than half of the force.

The audit “validated through data the need for change, the need for additional training, the need for compassion, the need for the community voice to be heard,” said Democratic Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter, who has represented Paterson in the state Legislature since 2012.

But some advocates, and even a few city officials, said the audit was not robust enough and they didn’t trust the police to reform.

“No one really believed that the police would hold themselves accountable,” said the Rev. Kenneth Clayton, pastor at St. Luke Baptist Church in Paterson. “It’s the belief that police don’t really police themselves.”

Advocates convinced state officials to take their complaints seriously following the fatal police shooting last year of Najee Seabrooks, 31.

It began when police responded to a call from family members concerned that he was hallucinating after taking drugs. When police arrived, they found the Black man barricaded in a bathroom. He had used a knife to cut himself and warned that he had a gun. Police said they fatally shot Seabrooks when he came out of the bathroom and lunged at them with a knife.

Distrust

Three weeks later, relying on state law, New Jersey’s attorney general took extraordinary action: His office took over the Paterson police force. Attorney General Matthew Platkin told the AP that he ordered the takeover, in part, because communities of color in Paterson have long complained about police discrimination.

“I don’t blame anyone who has lived in Paterson for a long period of time for being distrustful,” Platkin said, adding that reforming the force won’t be quick or easy.

Activists said they recognized the need for change but were skeptical the force could be reformed.

“What happened to Jameek is happening to people all across the country,” said Zellie Thomas, a Paterson native who leads a local Black Lives Matter organization. “It’s not just about this one police officer, or the three police officers that assaulted him inside of the ambulance. It’s about a system that we need to be able to take down.”

The city’s public safety director and police chief have sued Platkin, seeking to overturn the attorney general’s control.

Meanwhile, Jameek Lowery’s family and friends say they are still seeking answers.

On a weekday in mid-January, a dozen members of Lowery’s family and local supporters held a vigil on the ice-and-snow covered grounds of St. Peter’s Cemetery in Garfield, New Jersey, where their friend and brother was interred five years ago.

“Say his name,” an aunt exclaimed as they released nearly two dozen blue balloons.

The mourners replied in unison: “Jameek Lowery.”

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This story is part of an ongoing investigation led by The Associated Press in collaboration with the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism programs and FRONTLINE (PBS). The investigation includes the Lethal Restraint interactive story, database and the documentary, “Documenting Police Use Of Force,” premiering April 30 on PBS.

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The Associated Press receives support from the Public Welfare Foundation for reporting focused on criminal justice. This story also was supported by Columbia University’s Ira A. Lipman Center for Journalism and Civil and Human Rights in conjunction with Arnold Ventures. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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Contact AP’s global investigative team at [email protected] or