Lawsuit Questions How Port Arthur Police Respond to Mentally Ill Patients

Manuel Delacruz’s family alleges that hospital guards and police cornered a paranoid man with serious mental illness and then smothered him to death.

The Delacruz family realized Manuel was dangerously sick somewhere on the highway as they passed San Antonio. It was the summer of 2016 and they were coming back from a weeklong vacation in northern Mexico, where Manuel, 26, hadn’t slept much, refused to eat and thought someone was trying to poison him. His parents eventually doused him with a garden hose after he refused to shower or remove any of his clothes. On the 8-hour drive home, Manuel, who had seven years earlier been diagnosed with schizophrenia, grew increasingly paranoid as the sun went down.

“He kept flicking the lights on, saying, ‘Somebody’s in here, somebody’s in the truck, somebody’s following us,’” recalled his oldest sister Ruth. “We were going, like, 75 miles an hour when he just opened the car door. We don’t know if he was really thinking of jumping, but he just opened it.” The family pulled over and forced Manuel to sit in the middle seat so he couldn’t reach the door handles for the rest of the drive back to Port Arthur.

When they got home, Ruth says Manuel’s doctor suggested the family try to commit him to the Medical Center of Southeast Texas for emergency treatment. Because Manuel wouldn’t stay in the hospital, they tried to gain power of attorney so they could involuntarily commit him, but the process couldn’t be completed on such short notice. Eventually they called the Port Arthur Police Department. State law allows for police to file for emergency detention orders on people like Manuel who pose a potential danger to themselves.

But Manuel was terrified of police. Around the time he was diagnosed with mental illness, Ruth says that he spent a night in jail for public intoxication, an experience that jarred him so much that sirens sometimes sent him into hiding. When officers arrived at the Medical Center of Southeast Texas on August 1, 2016, Manuel walked off the hospital grounds. Ruth says police brought him back in handcuffs but eventually removed them when they realized he wasn’t combative, just scared. More than three hours passed after police finished the paperwork to commit him, and Manuel still wasn’t being treated, according to a lawsuit the Delacruz family filed against the hospital and city of Port Arthur last week. Ruth remembers that her brother at one point begged her to take him home, afraid the police would kill him.

Several family members who were at the hospital that day claim officers eventually ordered them to clear Manuel’s room when he refused to remove his underwear before putting on a medical gown. They say a mix of police and hospital staff then entered and shut the door behind them, which was followed by a loud banging inside. They claim that when the door opened, one officer had Manuel in a chokehold and then a scrum of guards, police and other hospital staff took him to the floor. According to their wrongful death lawsuit, at least six officers and guards piled on top of Manuel at one point. His autopsy report, which indicates he was shocked by a Taser, lists his cause and manner of death as “undetermined.”

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