City of Phoenix disputes man couldn’t breathe in fatal arrest attempt

Dec 1, 2021, 8:30 PM
FILE - In this June 5, 2020, file photo, Mussallina Muhaymin, left, and Zarinah Tavares, sisters of...

FILE - In this June 5, 2020, file photo, Mussallina Muhaymin, left, and Zarinah Tavares, sisters of Muhammad Abdul Muhaymin Jr., a homeless man who died while in Phoenix police custody, pose in Phoenix. Muhaymin, a homeless Black Muslim man, who died while being restrained by officers after he tried to carry his tiny dog into a public bathroom is among the kinds of cases that led the U.S. Justice Department to launch a widespread probe into the Phoenix Police Department. (AP Photo/Matt York, File)

(AP Photo/Matt York, File)

PHOENIX (AP) — The city of Phoenix disputed a claim by a Black man that he couldn’t breathe as officers held him down during a fatal arrest attempt nearly five years ago outside a community center, according to newly unsealed court records that provide the city’s most detailed publicly available account of the death.

Muhammad Abdul Muhaymin died during a January 2017 struggle with officers who were called to the community center after a city employee tried to deny Muhaymin, who was homeless and had schizophrenia, access to a bathroom because he had a dog with him. The struggle erupted when officers tried to arrest Muhaymin after learning he had an outstanding warrant for failing to appear in court for a misdemeanor drug-paraphernalia possession charge.

In a filing unsealed Tuesday, lawyers for the city acknowledged that Muhaymin didn’t punch or kick officers, but said he actively resisted arrest and repeatedly struggled with officers who tried to detain him. They said toxicology tests showed Muhaymin had a high level of methamphetamine in his system when he died.

When addressing Muhaymin’s statement that he couldn’t breathe, the attorneys said Muhaymin was “exerting tremendous strength in his resistance” and that officers noticed he was breathing and that there was nothing obstructing his ability to take in air.

“The words ‘I can’t breathe’ do not mean you literally do not have air,” David Chami, one of the attorneys representing Muhaymin’s sister in a lawsuit over the death, said Wednesday. “It means you are struggling to breathe. They (the city’s lawyers) know that.”

Two weeks ago, the city agreed to pay $5 million to settle the lawsuit by Muhaymin’s sister. The city denied the suit’s allegations of excessive force and wrongful death and settled the legal claims without acknowledging wrongdoing.

The city’s lawyers released some of their filings in the case late Tuesday after a judge issued an order to publicly release key pleadings and rulings in the case. An advocacy group for Muslims and the First Amendment Clinic at Arizona State University’s law school had separately petitioned the court to unseal the records. The ASU clinic made its request on behalf of The Associated Press.

Other records, including a key pretrial ruling, are expected to be released.

Though some of the video of the fatal encounter was previously released by Phoenix police, the city on Tuesday asked that that body camera footage from officers at the scene remain sealed until it could redact the birthdates and address of witnesses. The city provided no specific estimate on when the videos would be released.

The struggle outside the community center began when an officer told Muhaymin to set down his service dog because he was under arrest. An officer knocked the dog out of Muhaymin’s hands after Muhaymin 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 went into cardiac arrest, began vomiting and died, the lawsuit said.

While video previously released by the Phoenix police is often hard to follow, an officer can be seen in one clip pressing his knee into Muhaymin’s head.

None of the officers were criminally charged or faced internal discipline for their actions.

An autopsy report lists several factors in Muhaymin’s cause of death: cardiac arrest in the setting of coronary artery disease, psychiatric disease, acute methamphetamine intoxication and physical exertion when being subdued by law enforcement.

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City of Phoenix disputes man couldn’t breathe in fatal arrest attempt