“I can’t breathe” has depressingly become a common refrain as it pertains to police brutality.Eric Garner, George Floyd and countless men and women who have uttered these words before dying in police custody revealing that this is not some anomaly. And now, sadly, Muhammad Muhaymin Jr.’s is yet another name to be added to that list.
CNN reports that newly released bodycam footage shows Muhaymin repeatedly telling officers that he couldn’t breathe while they detained him. On January 27, 2017, Phoenix Police responded to a call from a community center Muhaymin frequented in Maryvale, Ariz. He wanted to use the restroom in the center but they wouldn’t allow him to go in with his emotional support dog. After Muhaymin argued with the manager, an employee was ordered to call 911. Initially, when the officers arrived they allowed Muhaymin to use the restroom with his dog but a background check ran on Muhaymin while he was in there showed he had an outstanding warrant for misdemeanor possession of a marijuana pipe.
When Muhaymin emerged from the restroom, the situation swiftly spiraled out of control. Officers tried to arrest him, and ultimately Muhaymin wound up facedown on the pavement just outside the facility with at least four officers on top of him struggling to put his hands in cuffs. Within eight minutes, Muhaymin was dead. His dog has not been seen since.
The Muhaymin family is suing the city for $10 million in a wrongful death suit that names 10 Phoenix police officers as defendants and is expected to go to jury trial early next year.
“In general, sending out armed police officers with guns to deal with somebody who’s having a mental breakdown — it’s a recipe for disaster,” said the family’s attorney, David Chami.
“We have heard the mayor of Phoenix and the police chief of Phoenix police talk about what happened in Minneapolis, say that they are ashamed, condemn the people involved as if it were something separate from us. They never acknowledge that what happened to George Floyd, their police officers did here, to Muhammad Muhaymin,” said Viri Hernandez, executive director of Poder in Action, a Phoenix advocacy group told CNN.
Oswald Grenier, Jason Hobel, Ronaldo Canilao and David Head, the four officers involved, were not subject to any disciplinary action for Muhaymin’s death and all four are still active on the force. The Phoenix Police force is one of the largest police forces in the country without civilian oversight, though according to AZ Central, Phoenix City Council approved almost $3 billion to go towards the formation of an oversight board last month. Phoenix PD conducted its own investigation of Muhaymin’s death and found there was no wrongdoing. “The department is investigating itself here. There’s an incentive to find no wrongdoing,” Chami told CNN.
Muhaymin was intermittently homeless and suffered from schizophrenia and anxiety according to documents obtained by CNN. The officers can even be heard referencing Muhaymin’s mental health saying, “he is a little 918,” which is police code for mentally ill.
Despite Muhaymin not being physically violent during the encounter, Phoenix police nonetheless said that Muhaymin had assaulted an officer and an employee of the community center. “When did they ever retract those statements? They never did.” Chami said of the police.
An autopsy conducted by Maricopa County medical examiner, Dr. Amanda Maskovyak labeled Muhaymin’s death a homicide and said the primary cause of death was cardiac arrest, intensified by “coronary artery disease, psychiatric disease, acute methamphetamine intoxication and physical exertion during law enforcement subdual.” Muhaymin’s family brought on Dr. Bennet Omalu as an expert witness who disagrees with Maskovyak’s assessment.
“Asphyxiation due to compression of his trunk and body” — not underlying conditions or drug use — was the cause of death, said Omalu, a forensic pathologist known for his research on chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) injuries in football players, and who was portrayed by Will Smith in the 2015 film “Concussion.”
By the time Muhaymin vomited, his body had been compressed under the weight of the officers for eight minutes, Omalu wrote in a report for the family’s attorney. This “high-scale traumatic stressor” caused Muhaymin to vomit, which entered and blocked his air passageways, cutting off oxygen to his brain and leading to “sudden death,” Omalu’s report says.
The report, exclusively obtained by CNN, concludes: “If Muhammad did not encounter the police on Jan. 4, 2017, he would not have died.”
The release of the body camera footage comes as Phoenix police are under increased pressure from protesters to release body camera footage from the shooting death of James Garcia by Phoenix Police officers on July 4th. In May, protests were held in the city when Dion Johnson died after being shot by a state trooper. In 2018, a report from the National Police Foundation showed that Phoenix Police led the nation in officer involved shooting, with 23 of the 44 incidents reported that year resulting in the victim’s death.
Chami has said that, similarly to Colorado Governor Jared Polis reopening the investigation into Elijah McClain’s death, he would like Muhaymin’s death to be re-examined as well. Mussallina Muhaymin, Muhammad’s sister, has expressed a desire for better police oversight in Phoenix.
“The police was judge, jury and executioner. And just because he wanted to use a public bathroom.” Mussallina told CNN.