One year ago, 41-year-old Felix DeJesus went missing after police in Paterson, New Jersey, apprehended him and then dropped him off at a park.
Before midnight on Feb. 2, 2022, DeJesus was accused of grabbing a woman inside a Paterson bodega. He appeared to be inebriated and body camera footage shows him being handcuffed and put in the back of a police car. But, according to officials, he was never officially arrested.
Instead, officers drove him more than a mile away to a nearby park. He was left there, wearing just a T-shirt and sweatpants as temperatures dropped below freezing.
He has still not been found, and his story has enraged a community where tensions with a troubled police department run high.
“They decided on their own behalf to come and bring my brother to this dark area,” said Giovanni DeJesus, one of Felix’s 10 younger siblings, standing in the park next to the Passaic River where DeJesus was last seen. Giovanni doesn’t understand why his brother, a father of two, wasn’t just brought to jail, the hospital or his home a couple of blocks away rather than to a park on the other side of town.
“It was brutal that night, it was very cold,” Giovanni said. “We’re trying to figure out what happened that night. We still haven’t figured it out.”
DeJesus’ disappearance is just one issue facing a small city with a nagging violent crime problem and a police department beset by controversy and criminality. The police chief was recently fired for falling asleep in the mayor’s meetings and failing to address violent crime. And six officers were recently convicted — with five sentenced to prison — for illegally stopping, searching, beating and stealing from Paterson residents.
It’s a department whose issues echo those expressed nationwide in recent years, such as police department diversity, officer training, proper use of body-worn cameras, and transparency when things go wrong.
“This city is in trouble. This city is in a bad place right now,” Corey Teague, a local civil rights activist, told members of the City Council last month as DeJesus’ relatives held aloft posters with his picture. “I’m tired of marching because we have police brutality and things going on in the police department. I’m sick and tired of the marching.”
In some instances, body-worn cameras have given Americans a window into corrupt and violent policing, like last month’s fatal beating of Tyre Nichols in Memphis. In the DeJesus case, body-worn camera footage was only released by the Paterson Police after journalists from The Paterson Press and USA Today Network sued.
The video revealed that the officers turned off the cameras after they had DeJesus in the car. That runs counter to state policy, which mandates officers keep cameras on for the duration of an encounter with the public. The two officers, both rookies, were later suspended without pay for 90 days for that and other procedural violations.
The video begins without sound, with DeJesus already on the ground and face down in the snowy dirt as he’s handcuffed. When the sound eventually turns on, DeJesus asks in Spanish why he’s being arrested, but gets no answer — the primary officer dealing with him doesn’t appear to speak or understand Spanish.
“Get in the car, let’s go,” the officer said, in English.
“OK, but don’t push me,” DeJesus responded, in Spanish.
DeJesus complained of a broken hand, possibly sustained earlier in the police encounter before the cameras turned on. “Listen to me,” DeJesus said. “My hand is broken, I swear to God.”
He’s ignored. The officer closes the door, curses, and walks over to the alleged victim. “I need you to just write something up saying he touched you and stuff like that, alright?” he says.
The woman tells the cop that DeJesus grabbed her and swung her around, but she doesn’t want to make a statement or file a complaint. The officer says that’s fine, and she leaves the scene.
Police officials later told the family that the officers then drove DeJesus to Westside Park, at his request, where a group of people were gathered. One of those people is now a “person of interest” in the missing persons investigation, according to Paterson Mayor Andre Sayegh.
“They should’ve never took my brother,” Giovanni DeJesus said. He rewatches the bodycam footage every day, looking for clues. “They should’ve left my brother alone.”
Teague, the civil rights activist, said one way to improve policing in Paterson would be to hire and promote people who are reflective of the community's racial and ethnic makeup. Paterson has one of the largest Arab populations in the northeast, and is majority Latino. The police force, however, does not reflect the community — it is far more white than the proportion of white people in the overall city, according to The Paterson Press. And in the police encounter with DeJesus, who is Puerto Rican, there was a clear language barrier with the officer.
“If we go in there and change the police department and make sure the leadership is reflective of the people in this community and put people in charge who actually care about the community they live in, then we’ll see the change that we wanna see,” Teague told the City Council.
The family later initiated the search process, using Jet Skis and boats to search the Passaic River. They advocated for attention in the local media, and eventually pressured county law enforcement to assist in the search and county prosecutors to launch an internal affairs investigation. But they said they don’t feel supported by the Paterson police; the neighboring town of Haledon, where DeJesus lived, is running the ongoing missing persons investigation.
Police violence is a persistent presence in Paterson. According to court records from the most recent convictions of six officers for running a robbery squad, an officer slammed his brakes while transporting a handcuffed man in the backseat — a tactic known as “brake-checking” — forcing the man’s head to slam against the divider in the backseat. The officers bragged about beating people, and referred to money in texts as “mango.”
“There was a thin blue line of silence,” one of the officers admitted in court, according to NJ.com. “That was the way of the department.”
Another of several recent indictments involving violence came last month, when Officer Spencer Finch was charged with assault for the second time. In body-worn camera footage from a 2021 incident, Finch is seen approaching an unarmed man, slapping him in the face, repeatedly hitting him with a flashlight, and then kneeing him in the head after he was handcuffed. But this incident was not on Finch’s camera because, just like the officers in the DeJesus case, Finch had his camera off. Instead, his partner filmed the incident.
Sayegh, the mayor, called this incident “deplorable” and fired the officer.
“You usually let the process play out, but I felt like it was so blatant and we want to send a message,” Sayegh told Gothamist. “And we also want to underscore the importance of why we were adamant about equipping our officers with body cameras.” (Through an attorney, Finch has denied the charges, saying he’s being scapegoated as a white officer due to “reverse racism.”)
Like other leaders across the country responding to persistent allegations of police misconduct, Sayegh is promising change. He agrees with critics that a more diverse police force is important, and recently swore in a class of 18 that includes four Black recruits, he said. The city is also investing $1 million for violence interruption while taking 600 guns off the streets in the last three years, he noted, and a new “Shop With a Cop” program involved giving kids $100 apiece to go to the mall with police officers.
“We do understand that the relationship has been ruptured between the police and the public,” Sayegh said. “So we want to restore the trust. We want to repair that relationship.”
In the meantime, the DeJesus family continues to look to Paterson officials for answers. Police and family members are offering a combined $20,000 reward for information leading to Felix DeJesus' return. The police departments of Paterson and neighboring Haledon, where DeJesus was living to care for his mother at the time he went missing, are putting up an additional $15,000.
The family has retained an attorney, Jeff Patti, and a private investigator. DeJesus should have been “brought to the police station for booking to let him dry out,” Patti said. “So there’s something wrong here.”
An earlier version of this story stated the incorrect date that Felix DeJesus went missing. He was last seen on the night of Feb. 2, 2022.