Family and advocates are calling for justice for the death of Muhammad Abdul Muhaymin Jr., a Black Muslim man who lost his life in the hands of Phoenix police officers during an arrest in 2017.
In the police bodycam footage of the almost 10-minute incident that was shared by advocacy group Muslim Advocates on Thursday, one of the officers could be heard mocking Muhaymin’s religion at the 6:10 mark.
The incident, which draws similarities to George Floyd’s death in the hands of Minneapolis cops, is being called Phoenix’s own “I can’t breathe” case as one of the officers was also seen pinning Muhaymin to the ground with a knee on his neck and head despite the victim uttering the same words as Floyd, The Arizona Republic reports.
All four officers involved in the incident were cleared and are still at post, with one of them later promoted to detective, according to CNN. Though the circumstances surrounding Muhaymin’s death did not receive nationwide attention as Floyd’s – which the family’s attorney thinks could have been as a result of the latter’s being filmed by a bystander – there have been renewed calls for authorities to reopen the case.
“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,” Viri Hernandez, executive director of Phoenix advocacy group, Poder in Action, told CNN in July. “They never acknowledge that what happened to George Floyd, their police officers did here, to Muhammad Muhaymin.”
On January 4, 2017, Muhaymin tried using the restroom of a community center but was blocked by employees because they said he couldn’t enter with his emotional support dog, a Chihuahua named Chiquita. According to Muhaymin’s family, he was experiencing homelessness at the time and also suffered from schizophrenia and anxiety, CNN reports.
The confrontation escalated and police were called to the scene. He was eventually allowed to use the restroom with his dog. While in the restroom, however, officers ran a background check on him which revealed he had an outstanding warrant for failing to appear in court for a 2016 misdemeanor possession of a marijuana pipe after he was stopped for jaywalking.
When Muhaymin returned after six minutes, the situation with the officers escalated and he was jostled out of the community center. His dog was forced out of his possession while the officers tried handcuffing him. “That’s my child,” Muhaymin is heard saying in reference to his dog in the video.
Later in the footage, one of the officers is seen with his knee on Muhaymin’s neck as they pin him down and tell him to “stop moving.” Muhaymin repeatedly says “I can’t breathe” and cries out, “Please Allah.”
“Allah? He’s not going to help you now,” one of the officers is heard saying. “Just relax.” In a statement to the New York Daily News, the Phoenix police department denied Muhaymin’s religion was mocked.
“In fact, the officers did not mock or target Mr. Muhaymin based on his religion, race, or any other factor,” a spokesperson responded in an email. “To the contrary, when Mr. Muhaymin is heard to say, ‘Please Allah,’ the officer responded, ‘Allah? We’re trying to help you right now dude, so relax. Relax, dude. Stop moving. Stop resisting, you understand?’”
Muhaymin continued to plead for help but he was told to “relax” and “stop resisting.” Muhaymin later became calm but went silent and vomited.
“He’s dead,” one of the officers is heard saying.
“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,” family’s attorney, David Chami, told CNN.
Officers not charged
All the officers involved in Muhaymin’s arrest were cleared of any wrongdoing by the Phoenix Police Department in the aftermath of his death, claiming the officers’ actions were not “out of policy” despite the officers admitting he did not attempt to harm any of them though he was “passive aggressive.”
Muhaymin’s death was ruled as homicide by a Maricopa County medical examiner, naming the main cause of death to have been as a result of a cardiac arrest culminated by “coronary artery disease, psychiatric disease, acute methamphetamine intoxication and physical exertion during law enforcement subdual,” according to CNN.
The family’s expert witness, Dr. Bennet Omalu, however, said Muhaymin’s death was as a result of “asphyxiation due to compression of his trunk and body” and not by any underlying health issues or drug use, concluding in a report that: “If Muhammad did not encounter the police on Jan. 4, 2017, he would not have died.”
Court documents on the case reveal the officers involved are protected by qualified immunity, “a controversial defense that grants special protection to officers accused of violating the Constitution,” according to CNN. The document also claimed Muhaymin “assaulted a government employee” though the footage appears to reveal otherwise, as the manager of the community center said he wasn’t assaulted.
“There’s no reason why he should have lost his life at the hands of police in the way he did,” Phoenix City Councilman Carlos Garcia said. “Screaming out for his dog, screaming out for help.”
Sister files lawsuit
Mussalina Muhaymin, the sister of the deceased, has filed a $10 million excessive force lawsuit against 10 officers, a city parks and recreation employee and Phoenix, according to The Arizona Republic.
“The city of Phoenix and the Phoenix police targeted my brother for his race, they mocked him for his religion and disability, and then brutally killed him,” she said in a statement to announce the release of the video on Thursday.
“Muhammad Muhaymin Jr. was a man—a man with a family who loved him. He was attacked and suffocated by Phoenix police in a wanton, malicious and depraved manner for nearly eight minutes as he cried ‘I can’t breathe,’ until his death. The city and county have taken no action to hold the responsible officers accountable for the brutal murder.”
Meanwhile, lawyers representing the Phoenix police want a federal judge to bar lawyers representing Muhaymin’s sister from drawing similarities between his death and that of George Floyd.