PHOENIX -- Officials agreed Wednesday to pay $5 million to settle a lawsuit over the January 2017 death of a Black man during an arrest attempt in which he cried out that he couldn’t breathe as officers held him down.
The 7-2 vote by the City Council ends the lawsuit by the sister of Muhammad Abdul Muhaymin, who was homeless and suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and schizophrenia.
“Although they (city officials) didn’t acknowledge any specific kind of wrongdoing, the settlement makes a strong statement -- and for that reason, I am happy we could move forward,” said Muhaymin’s sister, Mussallina Muhaymin.
City spokesman Dan Wilson declined to comment on the settlement on behalf of the city and police department. Lawyers representing the city had previously denied the lawsuit’s allegations of excessive force and wrongful death.
The struggle leading up to the death outside a community center arose after a city employee tried to deny Muhaymin access to a bathroom there because he had a dog with him. Officers who were called to the scene then discovered Muhaymin had an outstanding warrant for failing to appear in court for a misdemeanor drug-paraphernalia possession charge.
Outside the community center, tensions rose as an officer told Muhaymin to put down his service 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 went into cardiac arrest, began vomiting and died, the lawsuit said.
While the police body camera footage released by the Phoenix Police Department is often hard to follow, an officer can be seen in one clip pressing his knee into Muhaymin’s head.
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 court records. She testified she didn’t see Muhaymin punch, shove or act aggressively toward the officers.
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.
The civil rights group Muslim Advocates had previously released a video clip of the struggle that it said shows police mocking the religion of Muhaymin, who was Muslim. In the clip, Muhaymin is heard crying out in pain and calling for Allah, the Arabic word for God.
“Allah? He’s not going to help you right now,” an officer is heard saying. “Relax dude. Stop moving. Stop resisting. You understand?”
Phoenix police disputed that interpretation, saying officers were trying was trying to diffuse the situation according to their training.
Earlier this month, a judge issued an order to make public key pleadings and rulings in the case after Muslim Advocates 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.
Though the records haven’t yet been made publicly available, the judge set a Dec. 1 deadline for Muhaymin's sister and the city to offer final objections to releasing the records.
The U.S. Justice Department revealed this summer that it had launched a widespread civil rights investigation of the Phoenix Police Department.
The federal agency said it would would scrutinize whether officers have used excessive force, abused disabled people and those experiencing homelessness, engaged in discriminatory policing practices and retaliated against people for activities protected by the First Amendment.
City Council member Carlos Garcia, who voted to approve the payout approved Wednesday, said he hopes the money will prevent Muhaymin’s family from facing the sort of hardships he endured, but Miller doesn’t necessarily believe the settlement represents justice.
“Justice would have been for Muhammad to have housing and resources,” Garcia said.