Lawsuit claims excessive force in Phoenix man’s in-custody death

The lawsuit says the officers pulled Terrell’s ankles and swept his legs out from under him, causing him to hit the wall and the ground.
Published: Jan. 4, 2023 at 3:47 PM MST|Updated: Jan. 4, 2023 at 5:48 PM MST
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PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) — A lawsuit has been filed against two Valley law enforcement agencies alleging excessive force when a Phoenix man was taken into custody and died after being at a Maricopa County jail. The family of Akeen Terrell is suing the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office and the Phoenix Police Department. According to the documents, Terrell, who suffered from schizophrenia, was arrested on New Year’s Day in 2021 after behaving bizarrely at a party and wouldn’t leave. He was 6′2″ and 433 pounds, so because of his size, officers handcuffed his arms behind his back with two sets of handcuffs linked together. Officers admitted Terrell was mentally ill. The lawsuit says he engaged in passive resistance by going limp and not moving.

At the Lower Buckeye Jail, Terrell repeatedly yelled, “they’re trying to kill me, they’re trying to kill me.” Officers moved him to a cell where he was searched. Video from inside the jail released by the attorney for Terrell’s family shows a group of officers and MCSO employees forcing him into an isolation cell. The lawsuit says the officers pulled Terrell’s ankles and swept his legs out from under him, causing him to hit the wall and the ground.

The video shows law enforcement getting on top of him while he’s lying down. Terrell grunts several times while MCSO and police are on him, the family said. The lawsuit claims an MCSO sergeant and a police officer drove their knees into Terrell while another officer sat on his legs. Terrell’s attorney claims after about 90 seconds, he was struggling to breathe and stay alive. Two more Phoenix police officers joined in on the struggle with Terrell, according to the lawsuit. “It’s horrific. Anybody who watches that video, looks at it and says, ‘how can this be happening?’ How can law enforcement be doing this?’ It is so clear that Akeem is in medical distress, that he needs help, that what the officers’ body is doing is hurting him,” said attorney Jesse Showalter, who’s representing some of Terrell’s family.

After about three minutes, law enforcement leaves the cell, with Terrell motionless on the ground. It took about six minutes for MCSO to check on Terrell, according to the video. They performed CPR in the jail cell, and he was taken to the hospital, where he died. An autopsy confirmed that among the factors that killed him was positional asphyxia. “If anyone else who was not wearing a badge did what happens in that video, you would expect criminal charges,” Showalter said.

The lawsuit didn’t ask for a specific amount of money for general and punitive damages but wants a jury trial. “It’s about holding them responsible, holding them accountable and bringing this ultimately to a jury,” Showalter said. MCSO has not responded to requests for comment. The city of Phoenix says it can’t comment on pending litigation.