Family of Edmonton man who died in police custody speaks out, says he didn’t have to die

The family of 46-year old Mazin Zaim is speaking out saying the use of “excessive and unwarranted force” by police during an arrest led to his death.

Editor’s note: This article contains details some readers may find distressing. Discretion is advised. 

Following two recent deaths of people in police custody, the family of Mazin Zaim is calling out the Edmonton Police Service (EPS) for how officers respond to mental health emergencies, which they say led to their son’s death.

On Sept. 20, EPS responded to a complaint of a man acting erratically while swinging an ice chipper at the ground and at a passing vehicle.

EPS says that when officers arrived, the man complied with their demands to put down the weapon and to lay on the ground. Police say he was put in handcuffs and then went into medical distress. Zaim was taken to hospital where he later died.

READ MORE: ASIRT investigating circumstance around man’s death while in EPS custody

However, his family is saying that’s not the full story.

Zaim’s family claims that while he may have swung a tool at the ground or at a passing vehicle, his behaviour was a clear sign of someone in mental distress.

“It seems to be a one-size-fits-all approach where they get in, there is really no communication, they get physical immediately,” said Heather Steinke-Attia, Legal Council for Mazin’s family.

Agreeing with part of the EPS statement, the family says that their son complied with police orders and lay on the ground. However, they say what happened next was what led to Zaim’s death.

Providing video footage of the incident, the family says police began using force instead of communication during the arrest.

In the video, one officer could be seen wrenching Zaim’s right arm, and moving it behind his back, while also placing their knee on Mazin’s back. Two other officers join to help with the arrest, grabbing Zaim’s left arm and legs. A short time later a fourth officer joins in and places a leg on Mazin’s neck, head, and upper back.

A fifth officer can also be seen holding a Taser aimed at Zaim during the incident.

In the video Zaim can be heard saying “Stop,” “Help,” and “I can’t breathe,” before eventually becoming unresponsive.

CONTENT WARNING: The following video contains elements that some people may find disturbing

The family says it took the officers some time to notice that Zaim wasn’t breathing, and when they finally did, they removed the restraints and officers tried to resuscitate him before paramedics arrived.

According to the family, Zaim was taken to hospital and placed on life support. Zaim never regained consciousness and within hours of being removed from life support, died on Oct. 2.

Alberta’s police watchdog, the Alberta Serious Incident Response Team (ASIRT) wasn’t notified of the incident until Zaim died on Oct. 2.

The family claims they have not received any explanation from EPS regarding the delay in reporting the incident to ASIRT, when incidents involving serious injury are also supposed to be reported to ASIRT.

Steinke-Attia says there are ‘multi-level’ concerns here. Firstly with the way the police approach the scenario when they come upon a scene of someone who has been compliant, “As you can see in the video he’s complaint with all directions. What was the need for officers to get so physical and so hands-on?

“Part of my concern when you watch the video is you see that arguably the police escalated the emotional aspect of that incident because they grabbed his right arm, wrenched it up quite heavily, hardly and you can see he responded immediately with a pain response. And then they turn around and appear to use that pain response to them get on top of his legs and tie his legs and his hands and put so much pressure on his body.”

Steinke-Attia says ASIRT is waiting for the autopsy report to be completed. The autopsy was done in October, and she was told it could take up to 12 months for the report to be issued to ASIRT and then they would determine when that would be shared with the family.

The family also claims they did not receive a proper notification from police that their son was on life support following an in-custody event.

“Transparency and accountability in policing does not appear operative in Edmonton. This tragedy is reminiscent of the police neck restraint that killed George Floyd in the U.S. in 2020, an event that prompted international outrage and demands for change in police use of force,” said the family in a statement.

“Mazin Zaim was 46-years-old. He was at the Shaske Crescent location because he was looking after a friend’s home while they were on vacation. Friends and family say Mazin did not sound like himself the day before the incident and into the evening, and seemed to be having a mental health episode.”

(Photo provided by Mazin Zaim’s family.)

The statement went on to explain that the friend’s father who was with Zaim moments before police arrived, confirmed that he was “behaving oddly, but was not violent or aggressive.”

The statement concludes by saying, “Mazin did not hurt anyone, and he was neither aggressive nor resistant to police. He was in need of help.”

Steinke-Attia also points to an incident in Toronto where police arrested someone and video shows that the officers had a knee on the individual’s head and neck as well.  

“These tactics are concerning and in this case, they also applied a tactic called ‘hog-tying’ to strap and tether his feet and legs to his handcuffed arms,“ said Steinke-Attia. “It is inhumane. It was unnecessary. It was excessive.” 

She says the family wants to see a different approach taken to these types of incidents so it doesn’t happen to another family in the future.  

No civil action has been taken yet and it’s not yet determined if they will.

-With files from Adrienne South

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