PHOENIX — On Wednesday, the Phoenix City Council voted 7-2 in favor of approving a $5 million settlement agreement with the family of Muhammad Muhaymin nearly five years after Muhaymin’s death in Phoenix police custody.
Muhaymin was face down and handcuffed telling officers “I can’t breathe” in the minutes before he lost consciousness and died.
Muhammad Muhaymin Jr. died on Jan. 4, 2017, near the Maryvale Community Center in Phoenix. Police said they were responding to a complaint and arrested Muhaymin after learning he had an outstanding warrant.
Now, nearly five years later, the Phoenix City Council voted to determine that the city will pay $5 million to settle a federal lawsuit filed shortly after Muhaymin died.
“When this happened, he was homeless and suffering from mental illness. But he was so much more than that,” said Muhaymin’s sister, Mussallina Muhaymin. “So, the fact that they use deadly force and brutalized him on a misdemeanor warrant is unacceptable. There was no reason to treat him in that manner.”
Body camera video first released in the month following Muhyamin’s death showed multiple officers wrestling him to the ground and Muhaymin resisting the arrest. At times, officers tell him to relax but also use profanities. Muhaymin is heard asking for his sister and crying out that he couldn’t breathe.
Federal lawsuit demands $10 million from city, police
The federal lawsuit sought $10 million in damages and named 10 police officers and a city recreation employee as defendants.
Muhaymin’s family and their attorneys said in the lawsuit that the incident started when Muhaymin attempted to bring his small dog into the restroom with him. He called the dog Chiquita and the lawsuit said she was a service dog to help him handle mental illness including claustrophobia, schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Additional police arrived after receiving a complaint and attempted to take Muhaymin into custody on the warrant.
In the body camera video, officers demanded that Muhaymin put the dog down and eventually force her from his arms. He repeatedly asked to call his sister first, to help care for the dog.
The lawsuit and body camera video show Muhaymin was taken to the ground once, then walked towards a police vehicle and taken to the ground a second time. There he shouts out, “I can’t breathe!”
Eventually, he vomited, and officers realize he no longer has a pulse.
Police attempt CPR for several minutes but could not revive him.
One officer said audibly, “he’s dead.”
Officers did not violate law or policy
Ten police officers were named in the federal lawsuit as having some involvement in Muhammad Muhaymin Jr.’s death. However, just four were reviewed or investigated for any possible criminal act, according to records from the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office.
In 2018, the county’s In-Custody Death Review Board found none of the four officers had violated the law.
“It is the opinion of this Board that the officers did not commit any act that warrants criminal prosecution,” a determination letter stated in part.
Officer Oswald Grenier retired in 2020 and Officer Ronaldo Canilao retired in 2021, according to publicly available records. Officers David Head and Jason Hobel remain on the force.
The Phoenix Police Department provided a statement via email that none of the 10 officers named in the lawsuit faced discipline following Muhaymin’s death, but were investigated by the Professional Standards Bureau and found “in policy.”
Chief Williams declined an interview request for this story.
Prone restraint holds face national scrutiny
Muhaymin’s death gained national attention in the wake of the 2020 killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Both men were held down by officers handcuffing them while each called out that they could not breathe, and ultimately lost their lives.
“It’s now that I have a voice, it's been brought out what happened here in Phoenix, especially in lieu of George Floyd because it was so similar,” Mussallina Muhaymin said.
However, the danger of holding someone down and restricting their airways has been known to police and people who train police for years before Muhaymin and Floyd lost their lives.
A TEGNA Media investigation in 2020 found at least 107 people nationwide died facedown, on the ground since 2010. Their deaths led to more than $70 million in settlements and verdicts across the country.
All this, continuing for decades after the Department of Justice released a report through its National Institute of Justice Program in 1995 telling officers, “As soon as the suspect is handcuffed, get him off his stomach.”
“In a recent analysis of in-custody deaths, we discovered evidence that unexplained in-custody deaths are caused more often than is generally known by a little-known phenomenon called positional asphyxia… a person lying on his stomach has trouble breathing when pressure is applied to his back,” the report reads.
“And people are losing their life and they continue to lose their life. It is frustrating, it is hurtful,” Mussalina said. “I have a son, right? I have a daughter, I have grandchildren, how long is this going to continue to happen? My grandchildren, I want them to grow up in a world where they can have a better relationship with our public servants and not be concerned about, you know that they may be handled or mistreated or differently.”
Watch the full voting process below:
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