Four years ago, Muhammad Muhaymin tried to use a public restroom at a community center in west Phoenix. The Black Muslim man and father of two was carrying “Chiquita,” his small chihuahua and service animal.
It cost him his life.
A staff member at the center refused to let Muhaymin enter the restroom with the dog, and called the police. What followed would draw national scrutiny and comparisons to the death of George Floyd. Police officers attempted to detain Muhaymin and as they forced him to the ground, put their knees on his neck. “I can’t breathe,” he told them.
Several minutes later when the officers moved off his neck, he had no pulse.
On Thursday, the City of Phoenix approved a staggering $5 million payout to settle a lawsuit over Muhaymin’s death, brought by his sister. It’s one of the city’s largest settlements for a police misconduct case in recent years.
None of the 10 officers named in the case have ever faced any disciplinary action for what happened, despite pressure from activists.
Several of those officers have a rocky past on the force, records obtained by the Phoenix New Times show.
One day before the settlement decision, local advocates — including Vice Mayor Carlos Garcia — called for Maricopa County prosecutors to reopen a criminal investigation into Muhaymin’s death. The county attorney’s office, back in 2018, declined to bring charges against the officers involved.
“This settlement isn’t justice for Muhammad and his family,” Garcia said. “What I’ve heard from them is that they want accountability. They want to make sure this doesn’t happen to another family.”
Phoenix police Sgt. Andy Williams reiterated in a written statement to New Times what the department has said for years, that the officers involved were investigated internally by the city’s Critical Incident Review Board, a committee of civilians and department employees who reviews deaths of people while in police custody.
At least six of the officers used force on Muhaymin during the incident, according to a medical report on his death, although the roles that each individual officer played in the death is unclear.
“The actions of the officers involved were determined to be within department policy,” Williams said.
Still, some of those officers who responded to the call about Muhaymin had previously cost the city of Phoenix money in misconduct settlements in the past.
Kevin McGowan had already been fired by Phoenix police — and then reinstated — two years prior due to excessive force in a different case. During an arrest, he had slammed a teenager on the back while he lay on the ground, knocking out several of his teeth, the teen said in interviews at the time. The teen later filed a legal claim against the city of Phoenix, according to city records, although the outcome of the case remains unclear.
Shortly after Muhaymin’s death, McGowan was reassigned to administrative duties, although at the time, Phoenix police emphasized that the reassignment was not a disciplinary measure, and was “for his own safety” under public scrutiny.
A Phoenix police spokesperson told New Times that McGowan has since returned to normal duty.
At the time of Muhaymin’s death, McGowan’s past use of excessive force became a focal point for activists who pushed for the city to take action.
He was not alone.
Other officers involved in Muhaymin’s death had also been accused of misconduct before the incident, court records show.
The first officer to arrive on the scene, Oswald Grenier, is identified on Maricopa County’s Brady List. The Brady List catalgoues police officers who have a track record of dishonesty or misconduct, and is used to flags potentially unreliable court witnesses.
In Grenier’s case, it was for an incident where he unjustly arrested a man during a traffic stop but then lied about it to investigators, according to the findings of the resulting internal investigation. ABC15 published the Brady files of nearly 100 Phoenix police officers on the list, in an investigation last year.
Grenier was one of three Phoenix police officers named in a lawsuit by a gay man who alleged the officers were homophobic towards him and his partner in 2010 after the couple had called the police for help. The officers harassed the men and they “feared severe injury” during the incident. That case was settled for an undisclosed amount with the City of Phoenix.
The officer was named in a different lawsuit years earlier which alleged he had beaten a Latino man without cause while he was standing with two friends waiting for a ride outside of a nightclub, court records show.
Fellow officer Dennis Leroux also had a history of excessive force, federal court complaints show.
In 2006, Leroux was accused of kicking someone in the head to the point of unconsciousness, according to a civil rights complaint. In 2009, the officer had “kicked this plaintiff in the side, breaking bones,” records show. The court battle lingered for two years and went to trial in that case.
And, as New Times previously uncovered, two other officers involved in Muhaymin’s death were listed in a national database managed by the Plain View Project of violent or offensive posts made by police officers.
Plain View documented that Ryan Nielsen joked about his plan to buy a semi-automatic rifle to fend off his “ghetto neighbors.” Meanwhile, officer David Head said he wanted to give “a good ass-kicking” to a pair of teenagers.
Both Nielsen and Head were still on the force as of last year. Other officers, including Grenier, have since retired.
Maricopa County Attorney’s Office spokesperson Jennifer Liewer told New Times that the office would only reopen the case and reconsider criminal charges “should a law enforcement agency submit the case to our office for a second review.”
“There is not an ongoing investigation into this matter,” Liewer said.
Eric Naing, a spokesperson for Muslim Advocates, told New Times that he was not surprised to see little motion on the case, despite public interest. The national advocacy group has been fighting to unseal court records in Muhaymin’s case. Just this month, a judge relented. A new cache of documents related to the case will be made public in December.
“The City of Phoenix, the Phoenix Police Department, and Maricopa County have consistently worked to protect the officers who killed Muhammad Muhaymin Jr. from any accountability whatsoever,” Naing said.
“This settlement does not change that fact,” he said.