Police Being Sued for Shooting Three Emotionally Disturbed People
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The last words Elsa Cruz heard her husband say, in response to police officers banging on his locked front door, were: "Don't knock on my door, it's against my will."
She'll never forget what came next.
"I heard, bluh, bluh, bluh – the sound of the tool as they broke the door down. There was silence, then a loud bang."
The shot hit her husband Samuel, a Puerto Rican artist living in New Rochelle, New York, in the chest, and left him dying in a pool of blood in their home.
The encounter that led to the shooting, which happened in May of this year, began when Cruz, 55, called 911 to try to get medical help for her husband, who had become agitated. When police arrived, she told them that he had schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, but did not have a weapon. She begged them to allow her to talk to him, but they refused and told her to stay away. She sought refuge in a neighbour's apartment below the one she shared with her husband, within earshot of the unfolding tragedy.
"My husband was a very loving person, very respectful," Cruz said. He had come to the US to obtain the medication and treatment he needed for his mental health disorders, she said. She described him as a "model patient", who listened to health professionals and even volunteered as a counsellor for mentally ill patients for 16 years.
On her return in May from a trip to the Philippines, however, she recalls that her husband was acting strangely. He did not seem to recognise that she was his wife, and she believed he may have stopped taking his medication.
"I called for help. I thought it would be an ambulance, but it was the police, and they killed him," Cruz said. "I want to die with my husband. They didn't give him a chance to say anything. Why did they force open the door? They opened it and then, bang, they killed him. Why? It's so hard to accept."
Cruz's account of events is at odds with that of the New Rochelle police department, which says that Samuel Cruz brandished a knife, leading officers to tase him twice, and that they shot him when he came at them with his weapon. Patrick Carroll, the New Rochelle police commissioner, has defended his officers, and said the shooting was justified.
But Cruz's widow said she heard no scuffle, no fight. She wants to know why they left him without medical help for almost an hour. Cruz has sought police information on the incident, including the name of all the officers involved, through a Freedom of Information Act request, but it has gone unanswered.
On Tuesday, Cruz and her husband's daughter, Frances, filed a federal civil rights lawsuit in which they accuse the city of New Rochelle of failing to adequately train police in procedures to safeguard emotionally or mentally disturbed people. They claim that instead of calming things down, police escalated the situation by forcing open the door, leading to Cruz's death. They are also seeking $21m in damages and an injunction requiring the police to adopt and implement new protocols for dealing with the emotionally disturbed.
The Cruzes are being represented by Randolph McLaughlin, of Newman Ferrara LLP, who is also the attorney for the plaintiffs in a suit filed against New York City last month over a strikingly similar case.
Mohamed Bah, 28, a student in finance at Bronx Community College, was shot and killed by NYPD officers in Harlem on 25 September 2012. Bah's mother had called 911 for medical assistance, expecting an ambulance. After the police arrived, she asked them if she could talk to her son to try to calm him down, but was refused.