PHOENIX – The case of a homeless Black Muslim man who died while being restrained by officers after he tried to carry his tiny service dog into a public bathroom may have helped prompt the U.S. Justice Department this week to launch a widespread civil rights probe into the Phoenix police force, his family and their attorney says.
Mussallima Muhayim said the teenaged daughter of her brother Muhammad Abdul Muhaymin Jr. earlier this year wrote President Joe Biden and Attorney General Merrick Garland asking for an investigation into her father's January 2017 death.
“I'm happy they are looking into this and the department overall,” said Mussallima Muhayim, who has since adopted the child. “These things have been going on too long.”
Attorney David Chami said he believes the girl's letter and efforts by the family to reach out to the Justice Department “played an instrumental role” in the decision to launch the probe.
The Justice Department said Thursday it 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.
It follows a series of complaints from the community about police excesses — charging Black Lives Matter protesters as gang members, cursing and threatening a Black family in a shoplifting investigation and numerous incidents in which police brutality was alleged.
The new investigation is known as a “pattern or practice” — examining whether there is a pattern or practice of unconstitutional or unlawful policing — and generally is a sweeping review of an entire police department.
Law enforcement experts say such investigations can be useful but are limited in what they can do because they cannot make wholesale changes in a police department's culture.
“Frequently the pattern and practice kinds of agreements that they reach don’t get at the cultural level. They get at the policy level and the training level,” said Dennis Kenney, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York who focuses on organizational change. “Unless they can get at and sustain the change at a cultural level, it’s not likely to take or last.”
That’s especially true of changes forced by outside pressure, such as the Justice Department imposing legal action like a consent decree. Such actions are expensive, time-consuming and not likely to succeed unless the local police agency embraces the changes.
“The way in which these pattern and practice lawsuits can work best is by focusing not only the police administrators but local government officials’ attention on the need for changes to occur,” said Michael Scott, a criminal justice professor at Arizona State University who works extensively with Phoenix Police. “And to essentially make change non-negotiable.”
The real change comes when police brass embrace the changes and make sure line officers understand their expectations, Scott said. That means the reforms have to accepted by both police officers and the public.
“I guess the short way of thinking about these is that they provide the important leverage to get other other administrative reforms to happen,” Scott said.
Phoenix Police Chief Jeri Williams on Thursday promised to take the Justice Department’s findings seriously. She talked about reforms she has implemented and said she’s open to more.
“What do we tell the public?” Williams said. “We’re not afraid to embrace anyone coming in making an outside assessment of our agency, and wherever the gaps are, we’ll figure those gaps out and we’ll become a better police department.”
The Justice Department probe is the third announced by Garland into police agencies this year. It has launched similar investigation into police forces in Minneapolis, after the death of George Floyd, and in Louisville, Kentucky, after the death of Breonna Taylor. The Phoenix investigation is expected to take at least a year.
The Phoenix police force has come under fire in recent years for a high number of shootings and its handling of protests.
The top prosecutor in Arizona's Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix, in June permanently dismissed charges that included gang allegations against more than a dozen people arrested at an October 2020 protest against police brutality. Civil rights advocates had said Phoenix police and prosecutors were pursuing the gang charges as part of abusive political prosecutions intended to silence dissent.
In another widely debated case, a Black family was cursed at and threatened by Phoenix officers two years ago after their 4-year-old daughter carried a fashion doll out of a dollar store without paying for it.
Officers aimed guns at Dravon Ames and Iesha Harper during the confrontation captured on cellphone video. The couple, who said they didn't know their daughter took the doll, were later awarded $475,000 settlement by the city of Phoneix.
In the case of Muhammad Muhayim, 43, a wrongful death lawsuit by the family against Phoenix police is scheduled for a federal jury trial in March.
The lawsuit cites the Americans with Disabilities Act, noting that Muhayim carried a dog named Chiquita to help ease the symptoms of his schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress order and acute claustrophobia.
“The Justice Department’s investigation is an important step forward towards finally obtaining justice for the Muhaymin family," said Asifa Quraishi-Landes and Farah Brelvi, interim co-executive directors of Muslim Advocates, a national civil rights group that has brought attention to the case.
“Who is going to walk me (down the) aisle if I get married?” Muhayim's daughter wrote in her letter, which was shared with The Associated Press. “Why can't my father be here to say, ‘I am proud of you' when I go to college?”