PHOENIX — The City of Phoenix is now facing a $5-million legal claim from the family of a man who died in police custody last August.
Lawyers for the family of Ramon Timothy Lopez said officers acted negligently and caused his death by holding him down on scorching asphalt, restraining his hands and feet behind his back, and placing him in a position that can impede someone's breathing.
"Phoenix has known for years that placing a handcuffed or hogtied individual face-down for any period of time poses a serious risk of sudden death," according to the notice of claim, a precursor to a lawsuit. Famed civil rights attorney Ben Crump and other lawyers for Lopez's family filed the claim earlier this year.
"I'm hurt because my brother died for an unjust cause," said Lopez's brother David Gonzales. "He died way too soon."
On August 4, police were dispatched to a report of a man looking into car windows in a nearby parking lot. Phoenix police said Lopez, 28, saw the officer approaching him, so he ran into a liquor store, threw a drink at the officer, and ran away into the road at 51st Avenue and Indian School Road.
One officer tackled Lopez in the road, and three officers held him down. He was groaning while opening and closing his mouth. Officers used a RIPP restraint to secure Lopez's legs to the back of his handcuffs while he was lying face down. The restraint technique is sometimes known as hobbling or hogtying. Lopez, still restrained in that manner, was placed face down in the backseat of a police car. He became unresponsive two minutes later and died.
The claim listed four people who have died under similar circumstances in Phoenix police custody in the last decade. They are Ernest "Marty" Atencio, Edgardo Figueroa, Muhammad Muhaymin, and Casey Wells.
"They're getting away with too much over there," said Gonzales. "They killed my brother; there's no doubt about that."
Before his death, body camera video shows Lopez was also held on the scorching asphalt in the midday heat for six minutes.
"Anybody who lives in Arizona knows that doing that for any length of time amounts to torture," said Jesse Showalter, one of the family's attorneys.
An autopsy showed Lopez died from a combination of three things, methamphetamine use, weakened heart muscles, and physical restraint by police.
Phoenix police initially claimed Lopez resisted arrest and was only on the ground for a minimal amount of time. He did not have any weapons or drugs on him.
Eight months after Lopez's death, the Maricopa County Attorney's Office has not decided whether the officers should face criminal charges or whether the use-of-force was justified.
Phoenix police told ABC15 Tuesday they have not concluded their internal investigation, and the agency declined to comment further due to the pending legal claim.