A damaged dialysis machine. A broken hearing aid. A battered cancer patient. Those allegations are included in a federal lawsuit filed this week against a Texas police department accused of routinely using “severe force on docile civilians” – including people with medical conditions.
The lawsuit, filed Thursday in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas by attorneys for the National Police Accountability Project, alleges Rosenberg Police Department officers unlawfully detained a couple at gunpoint before destroying , damage or confiscate their property, including dialysis. device, November 6, 2020.
Regina Armstead and Michael Lewis, who suffer from kidney disease, said the nearly hour-long hiatus left them “scared, humiliated, embarrassed and persecuted for being black,” the lawsuit states.
Their experience, according to the lawsuit, is typical of “many other civilians” in the city of about 39,000 people, located about 40 miles southwest of Houston.
The couple, who were driving home after having a meal, were stopped by authorities looking for a white car linked to a group of armed teenagers, the lawsuit says.
Lewis and Armstead were driving a white Dodge Charger but were much older than the suspects: Armstead, a nursing assistant, is 57. Lewis, a retired Imperial Sugar supervisor, is 67.
Yet Armstead was handcuffed and placed in the patrol vehicle at gunpoint without explanation, according to the prosecution.
The couple alerted officers to the device in Lewis’ arm being used to connect to a dialysis machine – and the warning he had received from doctors not to put anything tight around his hands or wrists , depending on the combination.
“But they just kept doing what they wanted to do,” Lewis told NBC News.
The device, a fistula, malfunctioned after Lewis was arrested, and he has needed eight to 10 procedures in the nearly two years since to ensure his three-day treatment went smoothly per week, he said. On a trip last month, he said a relay had to be inserted into his arm to “open the vein”.
The couple were released without charge, although officers who searched their car confiscated Armstead’s mobile phone without telling her, she said.
And her key fob – which officers told her to drop – ended up crushed and on the road, she said. Armstead’s phone was returned, but the department failed to pay the $270 replacement cost of its key device, despite multiple requests, she said.
“I hope it makes it better for all of us, but especially for people of color,” Armstead said of the lawsuit. “It doesn’t just happen to us.”
Neither Rosenberg’s police chief nor the city’s mayor responded to requests for comment. The law firm representing the city did not respond, nor did two former police chiefs.
Phone messages left at the numbers listed for four of the officers named in the lawsuit were not returned and a fifth officer could not be reached.
“He is not an individual officer”
A lawyer for the couple, Lauren Bonds, said what Lewis and Armstead went through shows how the city’s police department operates without “any accountability”.
“He’s not an individual officer flying under the radar,” she said. “The city and the police department did not want to improve the behavior of their officers.”
The five officers involved in the couple’s arrest have been named in about 100 complaints over seven years, Bonds said, citing data his legal team obtained through a public records request.
In a 2016 incident mentioned in the lawsuit, a mother described an officer throwing her son’s phone to the ground and smashing it as he tried to record a police response to a loud family barbecue, said Leaps. Two years ago, officers “wielded pistols and rifles” at a group of unarmed people filming a music video, according to the lawsuit.
Bonds said the records request did not find any disciplinary action associated with the complaints.
NBC News has not verified the claims contained in the complaints. Neither the mayor nor the police chief responded to requests for comment.
Bonds also pointed to a series of lawsuits against the department that spanned more than a decade, including some filed by people with disabilities or medical conditions. In this last category, one of the cases has been dismissed, another has been settled and a third is in progress.
A broken hearing aid
In 2009, an off-duty hearing-impaired police sergeant from nearby Richmond was arrested in Rosenberg, according to a federal lawsuit that Staff Sergeant Robert Eiteman filed.
The lawsuit, mentioned in the lawsuit filed by the Police Accountability Project, was dismissed in 2013.
In an affidavit included in the lawsuit, Eiteman, who wore only one hearing aid at the time, said he was not told why he was arrested and believed he followed the instructions of the police. officer when he placed his hands on his car.
The officer, Justin Pannell, had actually told Eiteman to get back in his car – and what Pannell perceived as a challenge prompted him to throw Eiteman to the ground, according to a judge’s decision in the lawsuit.
Pannell punched and handcuffed Eiteman, then placed his knee on the sergeant’s head and neck while pressing his face against the asphalt, according to the ruling documents. Eiteman struggled to get into Pannell’s car and the officer threatened to ‘taser’ him, as per the ruling.
In the affidavit, Eiteman said his only working hearing aid — which cost $4,500 — was broken during the encounter.
He was charged with drunken driving and resisting arrest, although he denied the allegations and the charges were dismissed after a judge ruled there was no reason likely to place him in custody, according to the decision. In a complaint filed in 2011, Eiteman claimed that he was the victim of excessive force and a false arrest.
“Never did I imagine that I would become the target of an overly aggressive, rushing street cop with no respect for politics,” he said in the affidavit.
Lawyers representing the city denied the allegations, saying in a court filing that Pannell used a “reasonable” level of force when Eiteman failed to comply with verbal orders. The judge agreed with the city and in 2013 his lawsuit was thrown out.
A message left on a phone number listed as Eiteman was not returned, and the attorney representing him did not respond to a request for comment. Pannell, who left the department and now works for a private investigation firm, did not respond to a request for comment.
Altercation with a cancer patient
A year after the Eiteman case was dismissed, a 51-year-old woman with a device in her chest to administer cancer drugs was accosted by a Rosenberg police officer during a domestic dispute, according to a federal lawsuit filed in 2016 alleging excessive force. and false arrest.
The lawsuit was also referenced by the Police Accountability Project.
The dispute escalated into a physical confrontation when an officer told the woman’s husband to “stand back” as he alerted officers to her condition, according to the lawsuit, which cited dash cam video. After the man, Steven Saenz, backed off, an officer appeared to attack him and began “punching” his head, causing him to temporarily pass out, according to the suit.
Another officer tackled his wife, Christine Saenz, according to the lawsuit.
In disturbing cellphone video provided to NBC News by the family’s attorney, Steven Saenz can be seen on the ground with his head bloodied and an officer above him. Christine Saenz appears to be on the ground nearby, yelling at her husband to “stop” as another officer handcuffs her.
As the officers grapple with Steven Saenz, Christine Saenz can be seen standing up before an officer throws her to the ground. The same officer can then be seen punching Steven Saenz in the head.
“She needs to be checked out – she has cancer,” the couple’s son can be heard saying shortly after the video was taken.
On July 30, the Saenzes were arrested on suspicion of assaulting a public official and causing bodily harm, according to court records. Their son Brandon Alaniz was also arrested and charged with interfering with an officer.
In a court filing included in the federal lawsuit, attorneys for the police department said officers acted when Steven Saenz “physically inserted himself” between an officer and his wife.
“Officers asked Mr. Saenz to step back and stop interfering, but he refused to comply,” the filing said, adding that the couple instead assaulted the officers. Alaniz was taken into custody for “repeated interference” in the investigation, the document says.
Court records show that all but one of the charges were dismissed. A spokesperson for the Fort Bend County District Attorney said Alaniz’s charge was dropped due to insufficient evidence.
The charges against Christine Saenz were dismissed “in the interests of justice”, prosecutor’s spokesman Wesley Wittig said. Wittig added that it was unclear what that meant, and additional files that could clarify the dismissal were not immediately available.
The charges against Steven Saenz were reduced to a misdemeanor of resistance, and he pleaded guilty and received a sentence, Wittig said.
The Saenzes declined to be interviewed, but the attorney who handled their civil rights lawsuit, Robert Whitley, said the lawsuit was settled in 2017 for an undisclosed amount.
Steven Saenz’s nose was broken in the altercation, according to the lawsuit, and he and his wife suffered concussions.
“These cops were off the charts,” Whitley said. “They blew this whole situation up. It’s the kind of thing that makes your blood boil.