Texas police routinely deal with medically vulnerable individuals, according to the lawsuit

A damaged dialysis machine. A broken hearing aid. A troubled cancer patient. Those allegations are included in a federal lawsuit filed this week against a Texas law enforcement agency accused of routinely using “serious force against compliant civilians” — including those with medical conditions.

The lawsuit, filed Thursday in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas by attorneys with the National Police Accountability Project, alleges that Rosenberg Police Department officers illegally arrested a couple at gunpoint before destroying, damaging their belongings or confiscated, including the dialysis machine, on November 6, 2020.

Regina Armstead and Michael Lewis, who has kidney disease, said after the nearly hour-long stop they felt “scared, humiliated, embarrassed and haunted because they are black,” the suit reads.

Regina Armstead and Michael Lewis. The pair are suing the Rosenberg Police Department for illegal detention and damaging Lewis' dialysis machine.
Regina Armstead and Michael Lewis. The pair are suing the Rosenberg Police Department for illegal detention and damaging Lewis’ dialysis machine.Courtesy of Regina Armstead and Michael Lewis

Her experience, the lawsuit says, is typical of “many other civilians” in the city of about 39,000, which is about 40 miles southwest of Houston.

The couple, who were driving home after picking up a meal, were stopped by authorities who were looking for a white car linked to a group of armed teenagers, the lawsuit says.

Lewis and Armstead drove a white Dodge Charger but were much older than the suspects: Armstead, a male nurse, is 57 years old. Lewis, a retired Imperial Sugar supervisor, is 67 years old.

Still, Armstead was handcuffed and placed in the patrol car at gunpoint without explanation, the suit claims.

The pair drew officers’ attention to the device in Lewis’ arm, which was used to connect to a dialysis machine – and the warning he had received from doctors not to place anything tight around his hands or wrists, according to the suit.

“But they just kept doing what they wanted,” Lewis told NBC News.

The device, a fistula, stopped working after Lewis was arrested and he’s needed eight to 10 surgeries in the nearly two years since to ensure his treatment goes smoothly three days a week, he said. During a trip last month, he said a stint had to be inserted into his arm to “open the vein”.

The couple were released without charge, although officers who searched her car confiscated Armstead’s cell phone without telling her, she said.

And her key fob, which officers were supposed to drop, was crushed and down the street, she said. Armstead’s phone was returned, but the department hasn’t paid the $270 cost of replacing her key device, despite multiple requests, she said.

“I hope this 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 the Rosenberg Police Commissioner 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 listed numbers for four of the officers named in the lawsuit went unanswered and a fifth officer could not be reached.

“This is not a single officer”

An attorney for the couple, Lauren Bonds, said what Lewis and Armstead went through shows how the city’s police department operates “without accountability.”

“This is not a lone officer flying under the radar,” she said. “The city and the police were unwilling to improve the behavior of their officers.”

The five officers involved in the couple’s stop were named in about 100 complaints over seven years, Bonds said, citing data her legal team obtained through a public records request.

In a 2016 incident referenced in the lawsuit, a mother described an officer throwing her son’s phone on the ground and breaking it while trying to record a police response to a noisy family kitchen, Bonds said. Two years ago, officials “pulled pistols and rifles out” on a group of unarmed people who were filming a music video, the suit says.

Bonds said the filing request found no disciplinary action related to the complaints.

NBC News has not verified the claims in the complaints. Neither the mayor nor the police chief responded to requests for comment.

Bonds also cited a series of lawsuits against the department spanning more than a decade, including some brought by people with disabilities or medical conditions. In this latter category, one of the cases was dismissed, another was settled, and a third is pending.

A broken hearing aid

In 2009, an off-duty police sergeant with a hearing loss from nearby Richmond was pulled over in Rosenberg, according to a federal lawsuit filed by Master Sergeant Robert Eiteman.

The lawsuit, mentioned in the complaint filed by the Police Accountability Project, was dismissed in 2013.

In an affidavit accompanying the suit, Eiteman, who was only wearing a hearing aid at the time, said he was not told why he was pulled over and believed he was following the officer’s instructions when he opened his hands his put wagon.

The officer, Justin Pannell, had actually told Eiteman to get back in his car — and what Pannell perceived as defiance prompted him to throw Eiteman to the ground, according to a judge’s ruling in the lawsuit.

Pannell punched and handcuffed Eiteman, then put his knee on the sergeant’s head and neck while pressing his face into the asphalt, documents in the decision show. Eiteman made an effort to get into Pannell’s car and the officer threatened to “tass” him, according to the decision.

In the affidavit, Eiteman said his only working hearing aid — which cost $4,500 — broke during the encounter.

He was charged with suspected drunk driving and resisting arrest, although he denied the allegations and the charges were dropped after a judge found there was no probable cause to have him in custody, according to the ruling take. In a lawsuit filed in 2011, Eiteman alleged that he was a victim of excessive violence and false arrest.

“I never imagined that I would become the target of an overly aggressive stormtrooper street cop with no regard for politics,” he said in the affidavit.

Attorneys 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 dismissed.

A message left on a phone number listed under Eiteman’s name went unanswered, and the attorney representing him did not respond to a request for comment. Pannell, who has left the department and now works for a private investigative firm, did not respond to a request for comment.

Dealing with a cancer patient

A year after Eiteman’s case was dismissed, a 51-year-old woman with a device in her chest used to administer cancer drugs was attacked by a Rosenberg police officer during a family dispute, according to a federal lawsuit filed in 2016 alleging excessive force and false arrest.

The lawsuit was also referred to by the Police Accountability Project.

The argument escalated into a physical altercation when an officer told the woman’s husband to “back off” when he alerted officers to her condition, according to the lawsuit, which cited the dashcam video. After the man, Steven Saenz, stepped down, an officer appeared to attack him and began “hitting” his head, causing him to temporarily pass out, the suit said.

According to the lawsuit, another officer took action against his wife Christine Saenz.

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 a police officer on top of him. Christine Saenz appears to be lying on the ground nearby, yelling at her husband to “stop” while another officer handcuffs her.

As the officers wrestle with Steven Saenz, Christine Saenz is seen getting up before an officer throws her to the ground. The same officer is then seen punching Steven Saenz in the head.

“She needs to be examined – she has cancer,” the man who recorded the video, the couple’s son, heard a short time later.

On July 30, the Saenzes were arrested on suspicion of assaulting an officer and causing bodily harm, court documents show. Her son Brandon Alaniz was also arrested and charged with disturbing 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.”

“The officers asked Mr. Saenz to step down and stop interfering, but he refused to comply,” the filing said, adding that the couple instead attacked the officers. Alaniz was taken into custody for “repeated interference” in the investigation, the document said.

Court records show all but one charge was dropped. A spokesman for the Fort Bend County District Attorney’s Office said the charges against Alaniz were dropped due to insufficient evidence.

Prosecutor spokesman Wesley Wittig said the charges against Christine Saenz were dismissed “in the interests of justice.” Wittig added it was not clear what that meant and additional files that could clarify the dismissal were not immediately available.

The charges against Steven Saenz were reduced to resisting misdemeanor and he pleaded guilty and received a sentence, Wittig said.

The Saenzes declined an interview, but the attorney handling 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, the suit said, and both he and his wife suffered concussions.

“Those cops were off the charts,” Whitley said. “They blew up this whole situation. That kind of thing makes your blood boil.” Texas police routinely deal with medically vulnerable individuals, according to the lawsuit

Fry Electronics Team

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