It’s a message that has been woven into the fabric of our childhoods. The idea that our neighborhood police officers are there to help us when we need it.
As you grow up in Black skin, you begin to realize that it is often this misguided expectation that lands too many of us behind bars, laid to rest or traumatized. Even knowing the dangers of encountering the police - especially in heavily populated cities - the muscle memory to seek someone of authority when in crisis remains instinctual.
However, on the evening of January 5, when Jameek Lowery entered a Paterson area police station begging for help and claiming to be in immediate danger, he ended up dying days later in a hospital bed, his face bruised by unexplained injury.
His untimely passing was then neatly tucked away and labeled as an accident and muddled by a slew of confusing and conflicting statements to the press by police, but local activist Zellie Imani is on a mission for the truth.
Imani has been speaking out on Lowery’s behalf since his death, offering support to his family and tirelessly leading protests demanding answers. He has also been unapologetically outspoken about the overall neglect and abuse that is evident within the Paterson Police Department - a detail that is oddly brushed over by the mayor’s office when discussing Lowery’s death
Imani says, “As kids, we were taught to always go to adults or police if we were ever in trouble. And we have this situation where this young man went to the police for help, and he ended up in worse shape than he arrived in.”
The Paterson Police Department came under fire in March 2018 when an officer by the name of Ruben McAusland assaulted a suicidal man while he lay in a hospital bed.
Video footage of the assault emerged a year later, and by then an FBI investigation around 7 Paterson police officers was in full swing.
The investigation uncovered evidence that McAusland was a full-fledged criminal - with charges including drug dealing, cover-ups and assault.
In the case of McAusland, we were asked to swallow the “bad apple” theory, that McAusland entertained himself by assaulting one man and wasn’t a member of a corrupt police force. We were also asked to believe the last officers to see Lowery conscious were simply escorting him into an ambulance and using only necessary force to do so.
Lowery’s case gets stranger, still, when you look at the confusing statements given to local and national media over the last year.
Mayor Sayegh’s office released a statement shortly after his death claiming Lowery had contracted bacterial meningitis, a highly contagious disease that can lead to death within 24 hours.
There was also mention of Lowery crossing paths with Mayor Sayegh himself at a restaurant, leading to the mayor’s own panic around possible exposure.
Cut to the recently released medical examiner’s report stating Lowery’s cause of death was “Cardiac Arrest during Active Psychosis while Under the influence of Acute N-Ethyl Pentylone (Bath Salts).” No mention of bacterial meningitis.
“The city was pushing forth the narrative that he died of meningitis, but now that the prosecutor’s office has changed the narrative to him dying from bath salts, that's the narrative the mayor’s administration is going with,” Zellie said, “We find that really alarming, and the mayor should be held accountable for causing hysteria in the city.”
So where does this leave Jameek Lowery, his mourning family and the community steeped in mistrust and doubt?
Despite, the excessive use of force that was explained away by Jameek’s erratic behavior, despite his own claims police were trying to kill him, despite conflicting media reports put out by the Mayor’s office about bacterial Meningitis, despite the rich history of Mafia-style corruption within the police department - the answer offered is that Jameek Lowery died from a bad trip.
“The community knowing this doesn’t trust the police or the police reports,” Imani said, “They don’t necessarily trust the findings of the country prosecutor.”
Jameek’s family is having an independent autopsy done as a means to get some semblance of untampered truth regarding what happened to him that night. The report is set to be finalized soon.
Again we’re left with few answers and the hauntingly obvious knowledge that Jameek’s family is among a growing legacy of victims who have suffered loss at the hands of police officers who are given a license to abuse the law as casually as they promised to uphold it.
The very people we were once told to look up to as role models in our community are revealed over and over again to be the reason our neighborhoods and communities are crumbling in the first place. The corruption, the cover ups, the lies, the media diversions - none of it compensates for the loss of life or the loss of trust.
So, what happens now? Imani provides a small ray of hope in the darkness. “We were able to mobilize massive protests in the city of Paterson. We were able to petition the governor of New Jersey to sign into law legislation that would take any police-involved death out of the county where it occurred. So making sure that any police-involved death is investigated independently and not by the county prosecutor.”
This action, however, was passed into law after the death of Jameek Lowery, and so the fate of his case still rests in the hands of the same people who most likely caused it.
Imani remains determined and optimistic, “That was one win that came out of Jameek’s death, and we hope that it is one of many to come."
Photo: ABC7 New York