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Busted noses, broken devices: Texas police department routinely rough with the medically vulnerable, lawsuit alleges

A federal lawsuit says that the Rosenberg Police Department has been routinely aggressive with compliant civilians who are medically vulnerable.

A damaged dialysis device. A busted hearing aid. A roughed-up cancer patient. These allegations are included in a federal lawsuit filed this week against a Texas police department accused of routinely using “severe force on compliant civilians” — including people with medical issues.

The suit, filed Thursday in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas by lawyers with the National Police Accountability Project, claims that officers with the Rosenberg Police Department illegally detained a couple at gunpoint before destroying, damaging or confiscating their belongings, including the dialysis device, on Nov. 6, 2020.

Regina Armstead and Michael Lewis, who has kidney disease, said the nearly hour-long stop left them feeling “frightened, humiliated, embarrassed, and persecuted for being Black,” the suit says.

Regina Armstead and Michael Lewis. The couple is suing the Rosenberg Police Department for illegally detaining them and damaging Lewis' dialysis device.
Regina Armstead and Michael Lewis. The couple is suing the Rosenberg Police Department for illegally detaining them and damaging Lewis' dialysis device.Courtesy Regina Armstead and Michael Lewis

Their experience, according to the lawsuit, is typical for “many other civilians” in the city of roughly 39,000, located about 40 miles southwest of Houston.  

The pair, who had been driving home after picking up a meal, was stopped by authorities searching for a white car linked to a group of armed teens, the suit states.

Lewis and Armstead were driving a white Dodge Charger but were far older than the suspects: Armstead, a nursing assistant, is 57. Lewis, a retired Imperial Sugar supervisor, is 67. 

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

The couple alerted officers to the device in Lewis’ arm used to connect to a dialysis machine — and the warning he’d received from doctors not to put anything tight around his hands or wrists, according to the suit. 

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

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

The couple was released without being charged, though the officers who searched their car confiscated Armstead’s cellphone without telling her, she said. 

And her key fob — which officers told her to drop — wound up crushed and down the road, she said. Armstead’s phone was returned, but the department has not paid the $270 replacement cost of 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’s not just happening to us.”

Neither Rosenberg’s chief of police nor the city’s mayor responded to requests for comment. The law firm that represents the city did not respond, and neither did two former police chiefs.

Phone messages left at listed numbers for four of the officers named in the suit went unreturned, and a fifth officer could not be reached.

‘This is not an individual officer’

An attorney for the couple, Lauren Bonds, said that what Lewis and Armstead went through shows how the city’s police department operates with “no accountability.”

“This is not an individual officer who’s flying under the radar,” she said. “The city and police department have been unwilling to improve their officers’ behavior.”

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

In a 2016 incident referenced in the suit, a mother described an officer throwing her son’s phone on the ground and breaking it while he attempted to record a police response to a loud family cookout, Bonds said. Two years ago, officers “brandished pistols and rifles” at a group of unarmed people filming a music video, the suit says.

Bonds said the records request found no disciplinary measures associated with the complaints.

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

Bonds also pointed to a series of lawsuits filed against the department that spanned more than a decade, including some filed by people who are disabled or have medical issues. In this latter category, one of the cases was dismissed, another was settled and a third is ongoing.

A broken hearing aid

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

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

In an affidavit included in the suit, Eiteman, who was wearing only one hearing aid at the time, said he wasn’t told why he was stopped, and he believed he was following the officer’s instructions when he placed his hands on top of his car.

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 decision in the suit. 

Pannell punched and handcuffed Eiteman, then placed his knee on the sergeant’s head and neck while pressing his face into the asphalt, according to documents in the decision. Eiteman struggled to get into Pannell’s car, and the officer threatened to “tase” him, according to the decision.

In the affidavit, Eiteman said his one working hearing aid — which cost $4,500 — was broken during the encounter.

He was booked on suspicion of driving while intoxicated and resisting arrest, though he denied the allegations and the charges were dismissed after a judge found there was no probable cause to take him into custody, according to the decision. In a suit filed in 2011, Eiteman claimed he was the victim of excessive force and false arrest.

“Never did I imagine that I would become the target of an overly aggressive, storm-trooping street cop with no regard for policy,” 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 commands. 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 was not returned, and the lawyer who represented him did not respond to a request for comment. Pannell, who left the department and now works for a private investigations firm, did not respond to a request for comment.

Altercation with a cancer patient

A year after Eiteman’s case was dismissed, a 51-year-old woman with a device in her chest for administering 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 suit was also referenced by the Police Accountability Project.

The dispute escalated into a physical confrontation when an officer told the woman’s husband to “back off” as he alerted officers to her condition, according to the suit, which cited dashcam video. After the man, Steven Saenz, stepped back, an officer appeared to tackle him and began “pummeling” his head, causing him to temporarily blackout, the suit says.

Another officer tackled his wife, Christine Saenz, according to the suit.

In disturbing cellphone video provided to NBC News by the family’s lawyer, Steven Saenz can be seen on the ground, his head bloody and an officer on top of him. Christine Saenz appears to be on the ground nearby, yelling for her husband to “stop” as another officer places handcuffs on her.

As the officers wrestle with Steven Saenz, Christine Saenz can be seen rising to her feet before an officer throws her to the ground. The same officer can then be seen striking Steven Saenz in the head.

“She needs to be checked — she has cancer,” the man recording the video, the couple’s son, can be heard saying a short time later.

On July 30, the Saenzes were arrested on suspicion of assaulting a public servant and causing bodily injury, court records show. Their son Brandon Alaniz was also arrested and accused of interfering with an officer. 

In a court filing included in the federal lawsuit, lawyers 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 says, adding that instead, the couple assaulted the officers. Alaniz was taken into custody for “repeatedly interfering” with the investigation, the document says.

Court records show that all but one of the charges were dismissed. A spokesman for the Fort Bend County District Attorney’s said that Alaniz’s charge was dropped because of insufficient evidence. 

The charges against Christine Saenz were dismissed “in the interest of justice,” said the district attorney's spokesperson, Wesley Wittig. Wittig added that it wasn’t clear what that meant, and additional files that could clarify the dismissal weren’t immediately available. 

The charges against Steven Saenz were reduced to misdemeanor resisting, and he pleaded guilty and was given time served, Wittig said.

The Saenzes declined to be interviewed, but the lawyer who handled their civil rights suit, Robert Whitley, said the suit was settled in 2017 for an undisclosed amount.

Steven Saenz’s nose was broken in the altercation, the suit says, and both 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.”