How a Mentally Ill Haitian Immigrant Got Killed by New York Police
Why did two NYPD detectives investigating a robbery shoot David Felix to death in April despite being informed he was a diagnosed schizophrenic?
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, the family of David Felix sat around a table in the ground-floor common room of the East Village building where he used to live, remembering the son and brother they hadn't seen in a decade, and trying to understand how he came to be shot to death by a New York City Police detective in the hallway of his own home on April 25.
It took weeks for word of Felix's death to reach his family. His parents, Dorrelien and Margaly Felix, live in Port au Prince, Haiti, but were in the countryside when a phone call finally reached them saying that David was in some trouble.
"We raced back to figure out what was going on," Margaly Felix said, speaking in Creole as her sons, Ramong and Ecclesiaste, translated into English. "The same person called us a day later, and we learned that it's not trouble he's in—he died."
Coming when it did, you might expect the death of David Felix, a 24-year-old black man, at the hands of the police to cause an uproar. In the wake of the deaths of Eric Garner on Staten Island, Freddie Gray in Baltimore, and Walter Scott in South Carolina, police violence against people of color has been met with increasing condemnation and ongoing street protest across America.
But news of Felix's death sank almost without making a ripple.
One reason there was no angry response from New Yorkers, some of his friends believe, is that the police did an excellent job of getting out ahead of the story. Accounts in the Daily News, the New York Post and the New York Times the following day told the story, relying largely on unnamed police sources, from the perspective of the two detectives. The articles' portraits of Felix appear to have been derived almost entirely from his rap sheet, and initially transposed his first and last names, an inversion stemming from errors in police paperwork.
...Felix's family wasn't just trying to make sense of his death. They were also trying to piece together a picture of his life since they lost contact with him a decade ago.
According to the account police gave the press, Detectives Vicente Matias and Harold Carter were investigating an incident in which a woman was punched and her her purse stolen several days previously. They came looking for Felix at the East Sixth Street address where he lived in a supportive housing facility combining shelter with supervision and social services. Felix, who at times had been homeless and had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, was referred to the facility by social workers. The detectives proceeded upstairs to his room, and entered. Felix fled out his window and down a fire escape into a courtyard. The police intercepted him in the building's front hall, and shot him in the ensuing struggle after he allegedly hit one of the detectives with a police radio. Police said both detectives were treated for non-life-threatening injuries.
"There's no question the press made it less likely for people to protest this death," says Benjamin Ndugga-Kabuye, an organizer with theBlack Alliance for Just Immigration. "This movement is still concerned with respectability politics, and from the minute that story came out, he became a robbery suspect."
The media retelling of the police account certainly didn't do much to show Felix as anything but a deranged perp. He was "troubled," the Times reported, with "a history of mental illness and frequent run-ins with the law."
But, as noted in a recent letter to the Guardian by Marissa Ram and Brendan Conner, lawyers who had separately worked with Felix, the police version of the story recounted in the press left some questions unanswered. Why, having been informed of Felix's mental illness by a staff member at the supportive housing facility, did the detectives not follow the patrol guide instructions to contact a supervisor and the Emergency Service Unit? Did the detectives actually have a warrant for Felix's arrest? (Conner says building management told him cops presented a paper with Felix's picture on it, which sounds more like a rap sheet than a warrant. Staff members and leadership at the Bridge, the nonprofit that runs the facility, declined to comment for this story, and the NYPD did not respond to questions about the existence of a warrant.)
For that matter, Ram and Conner ask, why quote a former detective saying that getting hit with a police radio is like getting hit by a brick when, they argue, the former is about seven times lighter than the latter?
Felix's death also highlights ongoing questions about the NYPD's treatment of New Yorkers with mental illness, a bloody history that stretches back decades, from the death of Eleanor Bumpurs in 1984 to that of Shereese Francis in 2012. Felix, a runaway, eventually found his way off the streets and into his sixth-floor apartment at the Bridge. He had a lease, like most New York tenants, but the Bridge's supportive housing system meant that there were always staff members on hand to help. That staff wasn't able to protect David from what the police, though, and some homeless youth and their advocates argue that what happened to him that day fits into a larger context in which police violence against young runaways is increasingly moving into the housing facilities that are supposed to protect them from the dangers of the street.
"The newspaper says he has a mental problem; so put him in care, or get back up, or if you have to, shoot him somewhere in the arm, where it won't kill him." -Dorrelien Felix
"Police are supposed to protect us, especially in supportive housing," says Tee Emmanuel, a youth leader at Streetwise and Safe, an education group for young LGBT people of color in New York. "But police do not take us seriously, only our diagnoses, which may be a 'threat' to them."
Emmanuel recently called the police after being threatened by an ex. "The police know that my building houses primarily people of color and some people with mental health issues, and so there were over ten police at my door for just one individual," Emmanuel says. "Even though I called for protection from him, I was afraid what the police might do to him. This doesn't make me safe."
Homeless youth advocates say staff at supportive housing facilities in the city are in a complicated bind. Protecting their tenants from invasive police attention is made more difficult by the desire to maintain good relations in case of a situation in which they need the cops to respond to a real emergency. For Emmanuel, the result feels like a raw deal.
"How can you call it 'supportive' housing but we aren't actually being supported?" Emmannuel asks. "Police are constantly in our buildings. Staff do not protect residents from police encounters despite knowing our backgrounds and harmful experiences with the police."
Sitting in the common room of Felix's assisted living facility earlier this month, his father, Dorrelien, said the whole story still feels bizarre.
"The way that this happened, it doesn't seem normal at all," he said, speaking in Creole as his sons translated. "The newspaper says he has a mental problem; so put him in care, or get back up, or if you have to, shoot him somewhere in the arm, where it won't kill him."
Outside the glass door from the common room where the family gathered is the small cement courtyard David Felix descended into as he fled the police that day. The family had just visited David's room, accompanied by staff from the Bridge, but weren't allowed to take any of his possessions, including his well-thumbed Bible, because, they were told, the case is still under investigation by the police.
Visiting his room, Felix's family wasn't just trying to make sense of his death. They were also trying to piece together a picture of his life since they lost contact with him a decade ago. David grew up with his younger brothers and a sister, Phelina, in Haiti, but in 2005, when David was 15, Dorrelien brought the boys to Miami to go to school. He soon returned to Haiti, and the boys stayed on, living with a family friend.
His brothers remember him as a kind, ambitious, intellectually voracious person.
"He learned everything himself," Ramong said. "Spanish, English, proper French. He wrote poems. I remember the best thing he ever told me was that he wanted me to be even smarter than him."
But something wasn't right. David ran away from the place he was staying in Miami, eventually calling his mother in Haiti to tell her he was in New York. The life of teen runaways in New York City is brutally difficult, more so for people of color, and even more so for non-citizens.
"People in David's position have little access to housing, to employment, to the things you need to survive," says Ndugga-Kabuye of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration. "So now you're existing in a black market. The things you do to survive—sex work, shoplifting, whatever it is—now criminalize you. We're talking about survival. We're not talking about perfect victims."
In his ten years in New York, David Felix had his share of encounters with the police. The Times story indicated that police classified him as a runaway in 2007. He was hospitalized in the Bronx the following year after police found him in a state of emotional distress, and over the next three years, he was arrested for assault and grand larceny. He spent time imprisoned on Rikers Island, the city jail complex legendary for its violence and abusive conditions.
Throughout this period, Felix stayed close to the faith of his childhood. In recent years, he attended services and activities at a youth ministry a couple times a week, forging lasting friendships with the people he met there. He actively sought assistance from lawyers and social services providers, and sometimes had steady work.
By all accounts, he charmed everyone he met.
Conner, an attorney at Streetwise and Safe, met Felix when he helped him beat a bogus trespassing charge. Conner says after the case was over, he still visited David regularly at the Pret a Manger where he worked in inventory and food prep, buying a banana so they could catch up. "He was always so happy," Conner says. "He was proud of his work."
The day after the Felix family visited the place where David lived and died, his body was laid to rest at Rosehill Cemetery in Linden, New Jersey. Waiting for a Haitian Creole translator to arrive, people who had known Felix in different contexts shared their experience of him. One of the leaders of a church group David regularly attended pulled out his phone to show Ecclesiastes Felix his older brother's Instagram page.
"I never knew he had Instagram," Ecclesiastes said, his eyes locked on the phone, as he swiped slowly through a feed full of pictures of David posing with friends, working out, showing off a new Sisqo-style blonde dye job, always looking conspicuously fashionable.
Eventually the party gave up waiting for the translator and moved to David's grave, part of a new section of the cemetery, littered with equipment and mounds of red earth, sheets of half-inch plywood, rubber matting and burlap providing a pathway over the raw ground. At his mother's request, David's casket was all white, jogging a memory for Brendan Conner.
"The last time I saw David, he was dressed all in white, and I remember I gave him a hard time about it: 'Dude, it's not even Memorial Day yet,'" Conner said. "He just smiled and said something like, 'In fashion, you have to break the rules.'"
The burial ceremony was short but wrenching. Dorrelien Felix, David's father, spoke briefly in Creole, with Ecclesiaste interpreting. "What happened to David is not really fair," he translated. "We can't say how bad that feels. We can't really explain that."
"In the media now it's all hyped up because of Eric Garner, because of Mike Brown, because of BLM. But really this has been going on for decades...." -Reverend Valerie Ross
Ecclesiaste spoke of his brother as well. "He always had a smile on his face, a new joke to tell," he said. "He was one of the bravest men I have ever known. I miss him more than words can say." David's other brother, Ramong, stood to speak, but hung his head, wiping tears behind his glasses. "I don't find any words," he said, and sat again.
The Reverend Valerie Ross, officiating at the funeral, read from scripture and delivered a eulogy. "We've been here before," she said. "In the media now it's all hyped up because of Eric Garner, because of Mike Brown, because of BLM. But really this has been going on for decades, for far too long, not only in the city of New York but across America."
After the funeral, friends and family attended a repast at Judson Memorial Church in Washington Square. Sitting on folding chairs in the church basement, members of Felix's faith community remembered him as relentlessly friendly. "He was charismatic, but he wasn't abrasive," says Matthew Thompson, a young Irish leader with the New York Dream Center church group. "He was just a fun person. He was inclusive. If he saw you in the corner, he'd approach you and put you at your ease."
Najja Sadiki Plowden, a charismatic, dreadlocked man who also knew Felix through church activities, said they had a friendly rivalry over who could dress more fashionably. "He had a real heart for styling," Plowden said. "But he was really open. If you liked something, he liked it. He saw value in what you liked. Most people aren't like that."
When I asked David Felix's church friends what they thought of his death, how he died, they grew noticeably uncomfortable. "There are a lot of complexities in the world in general," said one man who asked not to be identified. "I choose to think about things that bring me peace and comfort."
Plowden was more open. "I'm sad and I'm angry," he said. "I was in the army. I believe in our government authorities. I pray for our government authorities. But I'm angry because I'm black. Because I know that if I don't comply with what's asked of me, because I know my rights, that because an officer may be lacking in training or having a bad day, I could be dead." He shook his head. "I have to be a part of this city, have to keep honoring the government I fought for. I'm sad that this government doesn't value me—didn't value David—because of the color of our skin. It's too close. It's too sensitive. David was a good kid. And now he's not here."
Why David Felix broke off contact with his family, whether it had to do with his mental health, family dynamics, or some other factor, is unclear. After the earthquake in 2010, communication infrastructure in Haiti was damaged and the Felix family got a new phone number. They comfort themselves with the possibility that maybe David had tried to reconnect with them but had simply been unable. As it turns out, earlier this year, David had approached a social service provider about locating his family and reestablishing contact. David was killed a few weeks later.
"Since he was young, I gave him everything," David's father said the day before the funeral. "My son died for I don't even know what reason. Even if they paid a million dollars, it wouldn't be enough. I want justice for his life. I want this to get to the government's ears. I want everyone to know David was a brave man, that he wasn't afraid to work. I want people to know who he was, and that what happened to him isn't right."
David Felix's friends are raising money to cover the costs of his burial and flying his family up from Haiti to attend it.
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