Phoenix Police Sued Over Death of Mentally Ill Man in Their Custody
Akeem Terrell had been behaving peculiarly at a party on New Year's Day in 2021, and did not cooperate with Phoenix, Arizona, police trying to arrest him after they ordered him to leave. He died in custody later that day.
Now surviving family members of Terrell's are suing Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone, the county itself, the city of Phoenix, and various officers involved in causing Terrell's death. The suit was filed last week in federal court in Arizona, suing over various alleged constitutional rights violations, and seeking compensatory and punitive damages and court costs.
As the suit describes the events, Terrell at the party "was expressing paranoid thoughts and making statements that did not make sense." When Terrell did not leave as ordered, officers handcuffed and arrested him. Terrell was over six feet tall and weighed 433 pounds, so "Officers handcuffed his arms behind his back with two sets of handcuffs linked together. The handcuffs forced [Terrell's] hands behind his back in a strange, painful, and unnatural way."
While Terrell did not strike at the police or try to escape, he was uncooperative in the sense of going limp; so he was arrested for both trespassing and "passively resisting arrest."
The police shoved him "in a face-down position in the back of the SUV" and told the Maricopa County Jail they had a "combative prisoner." His lawyers describe him as more accurately at the time "a mentally ill man in the midst of a mental health crisis." His speech made it clear he didn't quite understand where he was, and yelled, "They're trying to kill me, they're trying to kill me" and "This is just a game. This is just a show."
Officers shoved Terrell into an isolation cell, where they "pulled [his] ankles and swept his legs out from under him, causing him to fall into the wall and then the ground." With his hands behind his back, his "fall into the hard concrete was broken by his face and head."
Terrell was forced onto his stomach by four officers, even though "[p]lacing handcuffed people in a prone position creates an immediate risk of death or serious bodily injury. This is especially true for heavyset, obese, or barrel-chested people. This position is known to cause positional asphyxia." Officers "forcibly bent [Terrell's] legs backwards at the knee so that [his] heels were facing [his] buttocks" and an officer "placed his body weight on [his] back bent legs….placing [Terrell] in a 'hogtie' position that is known to compromise an individual's ability to breathe and to cause death and serious bodily injury."
More physical abuse of this man who did not leave a party when asked commenced, including knees on lower backs and other body parts, also making it harder for him to breath. His final words were, "killing me, killing me." Officers "ignored [his] lack of movement and labored, shallow breathing and continued to hold [Terrell] down in the forced hogtie position."
"When [Terrell's] body spasmed, the Officer Defendants took this as a sign of 'non-compliance' and applied additional pressure and body weight," the lawsuit charges.
They left him prone and face-down alone, seeking no medical attention for him. The officer "did not move [him] to the 'recovery position' (on his side) to lessen the risks of serious bodily injury or death that are created by being left in the prone position."
Officers came back to the face-down, cuffed prisoner about 6 minutes later and found him with no pulse.
This was all, police said, so that they could re-cuff him with Maricopa handcuffs instead of the city of Phoenix ones he came in wearing. They re-cuffed him as well in front of turning over his pulseless body. About a half hour, he was taken to a medical center and pronounced dead. As of this suit being filed last week, no officer had been disciplined for their role in Terrell's in-custody death.
The suit accuses the Phoenix police department of, in general, "Adopting a policy, custom, or practice of delaying and slowing down the release of information relating to incidents involving Officer uses of force in order to prevent the public and the victims of police violence from learning about the real facts involved in police uses of force" and "of 'purging' Officer discipline records so that Officers who are the subject of repeated complaints and investigations cannot be identified and the victims of police violence will have difficulty demonstrating the City of Phoenix's custom, pattern, and practice of using excessive force" and having a "practice of failing to fully investigate incidents involving Officer uses of force and in-custody deaths."
The suit lists at least five other specific cases of handcuffed, face-down people in police custody in Phoenix dying.
The misdeeds of Phoenix's police department, which is currently under federal Justice Department investigation, are all too frequently reported here at Reason. The national Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that in fiscal year 2020 there were, in federal custody alone, "65 arrest-related deaths and 614 deaths in custody." The Marshall Project collates numerous reports on deaths in police custody from across the nation.