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George Floyd case echoes death of Phoenix man during 2017 arrest

A man holds up a sign stating "I Can't Breathe" at a memorial for George Floyd on June 3, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

PHOENIX (AP) — The anger that overcame Mussallina Muhaymin when learning of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police turned into sadness after she concluded her brother faced a similar death three years ago while handcuffed and held down by Phoenix officers.

Police video shows a Phoenix officer pressing his knee on Muhammad Abdul Muhaymin’s head during his arrest outside a community center on a warrant for failing to appear in court. Earlier in the struggle, Muhaymin cried out, “I can’t breathe” as four officers tried to hold him down.

None of the officers have been criminally charged or faced internal discipline for their actions during the January 2017 arrest. Watching news coverage of Floyd’s death brought back Mussallina Muhaymin’s pain over her brother, who was homeless and suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and schizophrenia.

“This happened with the Phoenix Police Department, and they are back on the streets,” said Muhaymin, who has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the city.

Her lawyer has alleged an officer put his knee into Muhaymin’s neck, though the shaky body camera footage doesn’t clearly show that. Her lawyers say they have videos that haven’t been released publicly.

The Phoenix Police Department and Daniel O’Connor, a lawyer defending the officers, declined to comment on the case.

Police were called to the community center in the city’s Maryvale neighborhood after a dispute arose over whether Muhaymin could bring his service dog into a public bathroom.

Muhaymin was eventually allowed to go into the bathroom. But officers who ran a records check discovered he had an outstanding warrant for failing to appear in court for a misdemeanor drug-paraphernalia possession charge.

Once outside the community center, tensions rose as an officer told Muhaymin to put down his dog because he was under arrest. An officer knocked the dog out of Muhaymin’s hands after he said he didn’t have anyone to care for the animal, according to the lawsuit.

Muhaymin was forced to the ground after police asked him to cooperate, and he screamed in pain as officers handcuffed him. An officer made a profane, belittling comment to Muhaymin that he was now facing a felony.

After officers brought Muhaymin to a police SUV in the parking lot, officers again urged Muhaymin to stop moving. Still, the struggle continued, with officers again forcing him to the ground. “I can’t breathe,” Muhaymin said. “I can’t breathe.”

Minutes later, the 43-year-old Muhaymin went into cardiac arrest, began vomiting and died, the lawsuit said.

While the police body camera footage is often hard to follow, an officer can be seen in one clip pressing his knee into Muhaymin’s head. Unlike Floyd’s case, there was no video taken by civilians who witnessed the arrest.

A woman who witnessed the encounter in the parking lot testified in 2019 that officers dragged Muhaymin to the police SUV, slammed him against the vehicle’s hood and took him to the ground, according to an excerpt of her deposition filed in court. She testified she didn’t see Muhaymin punch, shove or act aggressively toward the officers.

The Maricopa County Attorney’s Office, which reviewed Muhaymin’s death, declined in February 2018 to criminally charge four officers involved in the arrest, saying it didn’t believe they committed acts that warranted prosecution.

David Chami, one of the attorneys representing Muhaymin’s sister, said the extent of Muhaymin’s resistance toward the officers was his failure to stop moving. “How do you sit still if you can’t breathe?” Chami asked.

A federal judge on Friday rejected a request by the city of Phoenix for a court order to bar the release of transcripts and videos from depositions in the case.

The request was a response to Facebook posts by a lawyer representing Muhaymin’s sister who included short video clips of Muhammad Muhaymin at the community center and drew comparisons between the deaths of George Floyd and Muhaymin.

The city said the lawyer was trying to create outrage over the death, incite violence against officers and garner news coverage, arguing the postings were intended to prejudice the officers and interfere with a fair trial.

Haytham Faraj, the lawyer who made the posting, said his social media comments are proper because they are a response to false claims that Muhaymin assaulted a community center employee and acted violently.

Faraj said he has a duty to push for political changes that lead to better police training and regulation of the police department.

“He didn’t have to die,” Faraj said. “Police departments have lots of tools at their disposal to handle people who are not threatening.”

The lawsuit seeks $10 million in damages. No trial date has been scheduled.

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