Bodycam footage from Phoenix arrest reveals new details about Black man's death in custody

Bodycamera footage from 2017 reveals details into the death of Muhammad Muhaymin Jr. while in Phoenix police custody.

Posted: Jul 9, 2020 7:31 PM
Updated: Jul 9, 2020 7:31 PM

With at least three officers on his legs and back — and yet another applying a knee to his head and neck — the Black man in his 40s cries out "I can't breathe" multiple times.

"Please Allah," he says.

"Allah? He's not going to help you now," one of the officers struggling to cuff him says. "Just relax."

"Please help me," the man says, in between screams. "Please."

"Relax!" an officer says. "Stop resisting."

The man's shrieks and utterances become groans. His body goes limp, he falls silent, and vomits.

Moments later in the bodycam footage, an officer can be heard saying, "He's dead."

The man at the bottom of the pile was Muhammad Muhaymin Jr. His death in police custody on January 4, 2017, has notable similarities with the case of George Floyd, who died on Memorial Day after Minneapolis police officers were atop him for nearly nine minutes — one with a knee on his neck.

The incident — which has drawn some local but little national coverage — is getting a second look against the backdrop of Floyd's death, which galvanized a movement and has changed the tenor of the national conversation around race and policing.

"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," said Viri Hernandez, executive director of Poder in Action, a Phoenix advocacy group. "They never acknowledge that what happened to George Floyd, their police officers did here, to Muhammad Muhaymin."

Officers involved in the death are still on the force

The incident in Phoenix began with a trip to a public restroom. When the 43-year-old Muhaymin — who struggled with mental illness and intermittent homelessness — tried to carry his emotional support dog, a Chihuahua named Chiquita, into the restroom of a community service center, the manager physically blocked him from entering the men's room and asked him to leave the dog outside. An argument ensued, and the manager instructed an employee to call 911.

This triggered a response by a handful of Phoenix police officers who in the bodycam footage initially appear to defuse the situation by allowing Muhaymin to use the men's room.

But during their fateful six-minute wait for Muhaymin to exit, officers conducted a background search and discovered a warrant on his record for failure to appear in court over a charge stemming from misdemeanor possession of a marijuana pipe. (That confiscation was the result of a 2016 stop by a police officer for jaywalking in nearby Mesa, Arizona.)

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.

Although the circumstances of the Floyd and Muhaymin cases share uncanny similarities, the impact they've had in terms of public awareness and consequences to the officers involved are a world apart.

In the case of Floyd, all four officers involved were terminated and are now facing criminal charges.

In the case of Muhaymin, none of the officers who responded to the call faced any discipline. All of them remain on the force; one is now a detective.

The Phoenix Police Department — one of the largest in the United States without civilian oversight — conducted its own investigation and found the officers committed no wrongdoing, according to Chami. (In response to a public records request, the police department has declined to provide CNN with the results of its investigation. The department said none of the officers' actions on that day was found to be "out of policy.")

"The department is investigating itself here," Chami said. "There's an incentive to find no wrongdoing."

The Maricopa County Attorney's Office reviewed the Phoenix Police Department's internal probe and determined that the officers "did not commit any act that warrants criminal prosecution," according to a letter dated February 22, 2018, provided to CNN.

Why medical experts disagree on the cause of death

A Maricopa County medical examiner, Dr. Amanda Maskovyak, has labeled Muhaymin's death a homicide — a technical term meaning somebody died at the hands of another. Maskovyak listed the primary cause of death to be cardiac arrest, aggravated by "coronary artery disease, psychiatric disease, acute methamphetamine intoxication and physical exertion during law enforcement subdual."

The family's expert witness, Dr. Bennet Omalu, disagrees.

"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."

A spokesperson with the Phoenix Police Department said they are constrained by litigation from commenting extensively about the Muhaymin case.

"The Phoenix Police Department is committed to the safety and security of each person in our community," the spokesperson said in a statement to CNN. "It is our goal to be accountable and transparent with our community while providing information related to critical incidents."

Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego declined to comment for this story.

The city of Phoenix has been wrestling with accusations of police brutality for the past several years. In 2018, it led the nation in fatal officer-involved shootings, with 23 deaths, according to a report by the National Police Foundation. The City Council voted this past February to establish a police oversight agency, which will launch next year.

The raw, unedited footage obtained by CNN includes bodycam videos supplied to Muhaymin's family through litigation. It brings to light several revealing moments that are not included in bodycam footage already released by the city, including how the officers speak about Muhaymin and his dog while he is in the restroom, out of earshot.

The footage also shows that the officers suspected that Muhaymin had mental health issues.

And the footage, unlike what has been released by the city, provides the clearest visual yet of an officer pinning Muhaymin against the pavement with a knee shortly before he dies.

In legal filings, the city says Muhaymin "assaulted a government employee," even though the manager can be seen in the bodycam footage saying he wasn't assaulted.

The court document also invokes qualified immunity, a controversial defense that grants special protection to officers accused of violating the Constitution. It argues that the dog was unleashed and "out of control" when Muhaymin was arrested, and that the force used against Muhaymin was "both reasonable and necessary, given his behavior."

The city in the document says Muhaymin "tensed up, thrashed about, pushed and kicked at officers."

Although Muhaymin appears in the videos to at times resist being cuffed — tensing up his arms or refusing to offer up his hands, for instance — none of the footage shows him kicking or punching any officers. Officers stated that Muhaymin "did not attempt to kick, bite, slap or otherwise harm the officers but that he was 'passive aggressive' and resisting arrest," according to the medical examiner's report.

Nor do the recordings show officers kicking or punching Muhaymin, though at one point an officer's elbow strikes his shoulder.

But the videos show several officers putting their weight on Muhaymin for several minutes at a time as he screams and groans.

"There's no reason why he should have lost his life at the hands of police in the way he did," said Carlos Garcia, a Phoenix city councilman. "Screaming out for his dog, screaming out for help."

What happened during Muhaymin's final hour

Years ago, Muhaymin — the father of a grown son and teenaged daughter — had been a garbage-truck driver in Phoenix. In the early 1990s, he traveled as a backup dancer with his sister Tonya Davis, a rapper who performed under the name "Overweight Pooch," the Arizona Republic reported.

He was close with his namesake father, and when his father died in 2006, Muhaymin's mental health began to deteriorate — to the point where, shortly before his death, he fell into homelessness, another of his three sisters, Mussallina Muhaymin, told CNN.

Muhaymin died on a typical sunny winter morning in Maryvale, a neighborhood or "urban village" of Phoenix with a history of crime issues.

A few years ago, the area drew some bizarre headlines for reports of roving packs of wild Chihuahuas, a claim that has been challenged by the local press.

Around 9:30 a.m. on January 4, 2017, Muhaymin walked into the Maryvale Community Center, where Phoenix residents come to play basketball, take classes or check out books from the nearby library, among other things. He was carrying his Chihuahua.

Muhaymin — who suffered from schizophrenia and anxiety, according to mental health documents obtained by CNN — lived outside in a makeshift encampment with a handful of other homeless people near the center, Chami said. All of his sisters lived nearby.

A security guard at a nearby hospital in Maryvale — which has since shuttered — told police Muhaymin had occasionally showed up to wash himself and his dog in the restroom, and had behaved erratically, such as by practicing martial arts in the lobby, sometimes with a long stick.

Muhaymin — a 5-foot, 7-inch man who wore dreadlocks — was also familiar to employees at the community center, where he'd taken his dog before. This time, an employee dialed 911.

"He's been here many times before and refused to leave," the employee tells the dispatcher in the call. The employee describes Muhaymin as "confrontational," adding that Muhaymin was "shoving" her supervisor — the manager — and "yelling" at him.

Four officers — Oswald Grenier, Jason Hobel, Ronaldo Canilao and David Head — arrived to find Muhaymin and the manager by the door of the restroom, arguing animatedly about the unleashed dog in Muhaymin's arms.

The bodycam footage shows Hobel interrupting the argument to ask the manager if he'd been assaulted by Muhaymin.

Muhaymin looks taken aback.

"Who said anything about assault?" he asks.

"I'm asking the question," Hobel answers, raising his voice. "You're ranting and raving getting nowhere, and I'm asking a question: Did he assault you, sir?"

In a key moment, the manager answers: "No. He was trying to get in and I didn't let him in. So, we bumped into each other."

(The manager later told officers that Muhaymin pushed him, and that he returned the shove, according to police reports.)

An officer says he and his colleagues were responding to a reported assault, and that after Muhaymin used the restroom, they would leave.

But that didn't happen. In the footage, when Muhaymin is in the restroom, Grenier tells other officers that he'd "dealt with" Muhaymin before.

He adds: "The dog is not a service dog."

(CNN has obtained documentation from Muhaymin's case manager that references his dog for "emotional support.")

Grenier runs the background check and discovers the warrant out of Mesa, a suburb of Phoenix.

An officer asks the others what to do with the "rat dog." Another responds, "Throw him in the back of my car and we'll drive him down to the shelter.

In an indication that they think Muhaymin is troubled, Hobel, who previously had responded to calls involving him, remarks that "he is a little 918" — police code for mentally ill.

Why Muhaymin wouldn't let go of his dog

Muhaymin eventually emerges from the bathroom and walks past the officers and through the lobby. They follow. One of them makes small talk, asking about the name of his dog.

But when Muhaymin exits the building, the dynamic changes. Grenier orders Muhaymin to stop and informs him of the warrant.

"A warrant?" Muhaymin asks, in apparent confusion. "Hold on."

The officers surround him and order him to let go of the dog.

"If that dog bites me, it's going to be a bad day," an officer warns.

They push him up against the glass wall of the basketball court in attempt to grab his hands, which are tucked in front of his body while still holding the dog, according to the police incident report.

The officers pry the dog loose from his hands; the Chihuahua lands on her feet and runs off.

Muhaymin cries out. The dog barks. The officers try to wrestle Muhaymin to the ground.

Bodycam footage shows an officer holding Muhaymin down with a knee to the head as the dog watches.

For a moment, as officers walk a handcuffed Muhaymin to a police cruiser, it seems as though the worst is over.

"That's my child, officer," Muhaymin pleads, referring to his dog running loose.

How a disastrous sequence of events played out

But as they proceed to the police vehicle, Hobel says he thinks Muhaymin could have a knife and so instead of putting him inside, they decide to search him against the vehicle's hood, according to the police incident report. A disastrous sequence of events follows.

In a move that Chami believes caused serious injury, Muhaymin's cuffed hands are raised over his head from behind his back. Muhaymin screams.

"Unless you're a contortionist, you're not going to be able to do that," Chami said.

Muhaymin cries out: "I cannot believe this."

An officer says, "f**king relax, dumbass."

The officers wrestle Muhaymin to the pavement on his side. The dog barks.

Again, an officer pins Muhaymin's head to the pavement with a knee, while three others apply weight on Muhaymin's waist and shoulders.

Muhaymin can be heard yelling, "I can't breathe" at least four times. He screams.

Additional officers arrive. The officers uncuff him. An officer places a restraint around Muhaymin's feet, according to police reports. The officers put the handcuffs back on and connect the cuffs to the ankle restraint with a strap, according to the medical examiner.

Muhaymin vomits and goes limp. The officers move Muhaymin away from the vomit, remove the rope and restraints, call for medics and — when they see he is not breathing — administer chest compressions, according to the medical examiner.

Omalu's report says Muhaymin stopped breathing and "no pulse was detected" at 10:04 a.m.

"There were at least six officers who were on top of Muhammad or pressed (Muhammad) prone on the sidewalk," Omalu's report says.

Muhaymin was transported by ambulance to nearby Maryvale Hospital, which has since closed and reopened under new ownership. There, at 10:39 a.m. — a little more than an hour after he'd walked into the community center to use the restroom — he was pronounced dead.

Police summoned animal control. An officer from the pound arrived and took the dog. But instead of impounding her, the officer gave the Chihuahua to a man at the scene who called himself a friend of Muhaymin's, according to a police report. Chami said a witness told him the man is homeless. In any case, Chami said, the family hasn't seen the dog since the incident.

Police say Muhaymin committed 'assault'

Even though police and witnesses later said Muhaymin did not become physically violent during the encounter, the authorities initially told local media outlets that Muhaymin had committed "assault" against an officer and an employee.

"When did they ever retract those statements?" Chami said, referring to the police. "They never did."

Chami said he would like to see the criminal investigation reopened, as was done recently in Colorado, where the governor in late June ordered a new examination into the death of Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old Black man who died from a heart attack shortly after police put him in a chokehold.

An attorney representing the officers in Muhaymin's case declined to comment.

Mussallina Muhaymin, Muhammad's sister, said the police department never apologized to her family. She added that the police sent flowers to his funeral — a gesture that struck lher as hollow.

"In taking his life, flowers actually, absolutely serve no purpose, other than add salt to the wound," she said. "Simply because, you know, I would prefer that my brother were standing there, and I was able to hug him and have a conversation with him."

Mussallina lamented the current lack of independent police oversight in Phoenix.

"The police was judge, jury and executioner," she said. "And just because he wanted to use a public bathroom."

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