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Police kill emotionally disturbed man, family to sue

June 25, 2013 3:21:15 PM PDT
There are claims of excessive force by the family of a man fatally shot by police in Westchester County. The family is about to file a lawsuit claiming police used excessive force.

Officers went to the home of 48-year-old Samuel Cruz in New Rochelle.

He was emotionally disturbed and his wife had called for help.

In a confrontation that followed, Cruz was shot by police.

The police say they were threatened with a knife and had no choice but to shoot.

But the widow claims police, whom she called to help, mishandled the situation by escalating a crisis that needed calmness and concern, not forced entry and fear.

"This is a still-life, a recent work," said Jim Hoffer, Eyewitness News investigative reporter.

"This is recent," said the victim's daughter.

Painting gave Samuel Cruz inner peace. His art helped him with his struggle with mental illness. In May, he had stopped taking his medication, and he started acting irrationally prompting his wife to call police.

"My intention was to call them to help my husband and bring to the hospital," said Elsa Cruz, the victim's wife.

Five New Rochelle Police officers responded, but when Cruz refused to open the door, they decided he might be in distress and forced open the door. First, they fired a taser when Cruz threatened them with a knife.

"I heard the sound of the door when open, all silent and then I heard, BANG! Very loud, we were shocked," Elsa Cruz said.

Wednesday, the family will file a notice to suit against the city and police for fatally shooting Cruz "without justification or cause" and for "police escalating the situation."

"Why didn't they bring in a trained professional and not treat him as if he was a criminal," said Randolph McLaughlin, attorney with Newman Ferrara Law Firm.

That option was not available to New Rochelle Police since in 2011 Westchester County dismantled its around-the-clock mobile Crisis Intervention Unit.

"A mental health professional would have come to assist police to help de-escalate the situation," said Legislator Alfreda Williams, Westchester County.

"But they can't do that," Hoffer said.

"They don't exist now so they can't do that," Williams said.

Cutbacks have reduced the Crisis Response hours to Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Cruz's breakdown occurred on Sunday. Eyewitness News has also learned the County failed Cruz in another way. He was a patient at one of the county's four mental health clinics before they were closed in 2011.

18 months ago, 68-year-old emotionally disturbed Kenneth Chamberlain was killed by White Plains police, who like in the Cruz case, broke down his door and shot him in his home as he held a knife.

"It's gotten to the point in Westchester County, if you have an emotionally disturbed family member don't the police, they might end up dead," McLaughlin said.

A spokesman for the Westchester County District Attorney says the DA is investigating whether the shooting was justified.

Meanwhile, New Rochelle Police and the County Executive's Office declined to comment on our report.

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