In a federal lawsuit, it is said that the Rosenberg Police Department is often mean to people who don’t do anything wrong and are sick or elderly.
A broken dialysis machine. The hearing aid is broken. A cancer patient who had been hurt. This week, a federal lawsuit was filed against a Texas police department, which is accused of using “severe force on compliant civilians,” including people with health problems. This is one of the claims in the lawsuit.
Lawyers with the National Police Accountability Project filed the suit on Thursday in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas. It says that on November 6, 2020, officers with the Rosenberg Police Department illegally detained a couple at gunpoint and then destroyed, damaged, or took their belongings, including the dialysis device.
Regina Armstead and Michael Lewis, who has kidney disease, said the nearly hour-long stop made them feel “frightened, humiliated, embarrassed, and persecuted for being Black,” the lawsuit says.
The lawsuit says that their experience is like that of “many other civilians” in the city of about 39,000 people, which is about 40 miles southwest of Houston.
The suit says that the police stopped the two people as they were driving home after getting food. They were looking for a white car that was linked to a group of armed teens.
Lewis and Armstead were driving a white Dodge Charger, but they were much older than the suspects: Armstead is 57 and works as a nurse’s aide. Lewis is 67 and used to be a supervisor at Imperial Sugar.
The suit says that Armstead was still handcuffed and put in the patrol car at gunpoint without being told why.
The suit says that the couple told police about the device in Lewis’ arm that was used to connect to a dialysis machine and about how doctors had told him not to put anything tight around his hands or wrists.
Lewis told NBC News, “But they just kept doing what they wanted.”
After Lewis was arrested, the device, called a fistula, stopped working. Since then, he’s had to have eight to ten procedures to make sure that his three-days-a-week treatment goes smoothly. During a trip last month, he said that a “stent” had to be put into his arm to “open up the vein.”
The couple was let go without being charged, but Armstead said that when the police searched their car, they took her phone without telling her.
She said that when officers told her to drop her key fob, it got crushed and thrown down the road. Armstead’s phone was given back to her, but the department hasn’t paid the $270 to replace her key device, even though she’s asked for it several times, she said.
Armstead said of the lawsuit, “I hope this makes things better for everyone, but especially for people of colour.” “This doesn’t just happen to us.”
Neither the chief of police in Rosenberg nor the mayor of the city responded to requests for comments. The law firm that represents the city and two former police chiefs did not answer.
Four of the officers named in the lawsuit did not answer the phone when messages were left at their listed numbers, and a fifth officer could not be reached.
“This isn’t a single officer.”
Lauren Bonds, an attorney for the couple, said that what happened to Lewis and Armstead shows that the city’s police department has “no accountability.”
“This is not just one officer trying to stay out of sight,” she said. “The city and police department haven’t done anything to change the way their officers act.”
Bonds said that the five officers involved in the couple’s stop had been named in about 100 complaints over the past seven years. She said that her legal team got this information by asking for public records.
In the lawsuit, a mother said that in 2016, an officer threw her son’s phone to the ground and broke it while he was trying to record the police’s response to a loud family cookout. Bonds said that the incident was mentioned in the suit. The lawsuit says that two years ago, officers pointed guns at a group of unarmed people who were making a music video.
Bonds said that the request for records showed that there were no punishments related to the complaints.
The claims in the complaints have not been checked by NBC News. Neither the mayor nor the head of the police department answered our questions.
Bonds also brought up a series of lawsuits against the department that went back more than a decade. Some of these lawsuits were filed by people with disabilities or health problems. In this last group, one case was thrown out, another was settled, and the third is still going on.
An unusable hearing aid.
According to a federal lawsuit that master sergeant Robert Eiteman filed, an off-duty police sergeant with hearing loss from nearby Richmond was pulled over in Rosenberg in 2009.
The lawsuit, which was mentioned in the Police Accountability Project’s complaint, was thrown out in 2013.
In an affidavit that was part of the lawsuit, Eiteman, who was only wearing one hearing aid at the time, said he didn’t know why he was stopped and thought the officer told him to put his hands on top of his car.
The officer, Justin Pannell, had actually told Eiteman to get back in his car, and Pannell threw Eiteman to the ground because he thought Eiteman was being disrespectful.
According to documents in the decision, Pannell punched Eiteman and put handcuffs on him. He then put his knee on the sergeant’s head and neck and pressed his face into the asphalt. The officer threatened to “tase” Eiteman because he was having trouble getting into Pannell’s car.
In the affidavit, Eiteman said that the fight broke his only working hearing aid, which cost $4,500.
He was arrested on suspicion of driving while drunk and resisting arrest. He denied the accusations, and a judge threw out the charges after finding there wasn’t enough evidence to take him into custody. In a lawsuit he filed in 2011, Eiteman said he was wrongfully arrested and hit with too much force.
“I never thought I’d be the target of a street cop who was too aggressive and didn’t care about the rules,” he said in the affidavit.
In a court filing, lawyers for the city denied the claims and said that Pannell only used “reasonable” force when Eiteman didn’t listen to verbal orders. The judge agreed with the city, so his case was dropped in 2013.
No one called back when a message was left at a phone number listed under Eiteman’s name, and his lawyer did not answer when asked for comment. Pannell left the department and now works for a private investigations firm. When asked for comment, he did not respond.
Getting into a fight with a cancer patient.
A year after Eiteman’s case was dropped, a 51-year-old woman with a device in her chest to give cancer-fighting drugs was tackled by a Rosenberg police officer during a family dispute, according to a federal lawsuit filed in 2016 alleging excessive force and false arrest.
The Police Accountability Project also said something about the suit.
Dashcam video was used in the lawsuit to show that the argument turned into a physical fight when an officer told the woman’s husband to “back off” as he told officers about her condition. The suit says that when Steven Saenz stepped back, an officer came up behind him and started “pummeling” his head, which made him temporarily lose consciousness.
The suit says that Christine Saenz, his wife, was tackled by another officer.
The family’s lawyer gave NBC News a disturbing cell phone video of Steven Saenz on the ground with blood on his head and an officer on top of him. Christine Saenz seems to be on the ground nearby, yelling at her husband to “stop” as another officer puts handcuffs on her.
Officers are wrestling with Steven Saenz, and Christine Saenz can be seen standing up before she is thrown to the ground by an officer. After that, the same officer is seen hitting Steven Saenz in the head.
A short time later, the couple’s son, who was recording the video, can be heard saying, “She needs to be checked out—she has cancer.”
Court records show that on July 30, the Saenzes were arrested on suspicion of assaulting and hurting a public servant. Their son Brandon Alaniz was also arrested and accused of trying to stop an officer from doing his job.
In a court filing that was part of the federal lawsuit, the police department’s lawyers said that officers did something when Steven Saenz “physically put himself” between an officer and his wife.
“Officers asked Mr. Saenz to step back and stop getting in the way, but he refused,” the filing says, adding that the couple attacked the officers instead. The document says that Alaniz was taken into custody because he kept getting in the way of the investigation.
The court records show that all of the charges except one were dropped. A spokesman for the Fort Bend County District Attorney’s office said that the charge against Alaniz was dropped because there wasn’t enough evidence to support it.
Wesley Wittig, a spokesman for the district attorney, said that the charges against Christine Saenz were dropped “in the interest of justice.” Wittig added that it wasn’t clear what that meant and that there weren’t any other files that could explain the dismissal right away.
Steven Saenz’s charges were lowered to a misdemeanour, and he pleaded guilty and was given credit for time already served, Wittig said.
The Saenzes didn’t want to be interviewed, but their civil rights lawyer, Robert Whitley, said that the case was settled in 2017 for an amount that can’t be said.
The suit says that during the fight, Steven Saenz’s nose was broken and both he and his wife got concussions.
Whitley said, “These cops were way above and beyond.” “They made a mess of everything. It’s the kind of thing that gets your blood boiling.”