Lawsuits claim KCK police killed man during traffic stop as he cried ‘I can’t breathe’

An unexplained death of a man in police custody in 2014 now has turned into an alleged police brutality case against the Kansas City, Kan., police department.

A Kansas City, Kan., woman is suing the city, claiming police negligently and wrongfully killed her longtime boyfriend during a traffic stop.

The woman, Phyllis Salazar, says she watched as officers tackled Craig McKinnis, 44, to the ground. The rest she could only hear as she sat on a curb at the orders of police.

“I can’t breathe,” Salazar heard McKinnis cry, according to court documents.

“If you can talk, you can breath (sic),” an officer replied.

Salazar didn’t learn of McKinnis’ death until later, when she was under questioning at the police department, court documents say.

Now, Salazar is suing, claiming police violated McKinnis’ civil rights during the May 2014 traffic stop and that their “outrageous” conduct wrongfully resulted in his death. The lawsuit identifies Salazar as McKinnis’ common-law wife.

In a separate lawsuit with similar claims, McKinnis’ family is also suing.

The lawsuits were filed in federal court in Kansas City, Kan., by Salazar and McKinnis’ family on Dec. 9, 2015, and June 18, 2015, respectively.

Collectively, the lawsuits list the Unified Government of Wyandotte County, Kansas City, Kan., the Kansas City, Kan., Police Department, nine officers, two detectives and two anonymous men as defendants.

Salazar’s lawsuit is seeking both compensation for her suffering and punitive damages, the amounts of which would be decided by a jury.

Craig McKinnis

McKinnis’ family’s lawsuit is seeking compensation for their suffering as well as damages “in an amount sufficient to make an example of those defendants and to deter future misconduct.”

Attorneys for both Salazar and McKinnis’ family declined to comment for this article.

Henry Couchman, the attorney representing all but one defendant, denied the lawsuits’ claims in court filings, noting the defendants believed their use of force to be necessary to arrest McKinnis and to “defend themselves from bodily harm.”

The traffic stop

Around 6 p.m. on May 22, 2014, Salazar was driving along the 500 block of Stewart Avenue in Kansas City, Kan., with McKinnis riding in the passenger seat, when the car was pulled over by officers Jeremy Shepard and Andrew Wilcox.

Earlier, the officers noted that Salazar’s car had been parked outside a known drug house, according to police reports filed after the incident. They pulled her over due to a turn-signal violation.

During the stop, the officers asked both Salazar and McKinnis for identification, the reports say. McKinnis said he had none and instead gave the name of someone he knew as his own name.

Shepard, however, said he believed McKinnis was lying because “he could not give his Social Security information.”

At the time of the stop, McKinnis had a single warrant out for his arrest on suspicion of petty larceny, police reports say.

When officers looked up the fake name McKinnis had given them, several active arrest warrants popped up, the police reports say.

The two officers then asked McKinnis, who is black, to get out of the car.

Salazar is a white woman, and it is unclear what race the two officers are.

Outside the car, McKinnis ran, the police reports say.

The officers soon caught up to McKinnis, who was 5 feet 7 inches tall and weighed 244 pounds, according to his autopsy report.

As police caught McKinnis, additional officers arrived on the scene, Salazar’s lawsuit says. Some helped subdue McKinnis while others stood by.

During the struggle McKinnis was able to crawl back into Salazar’s car, the police reports say. Though he was able to turn the car on, officers were able to drag him back outside the vehicle.

As he fought with officers, McKinnis kicked so much he was placed into leg shackles, Officer Steven Sheldon’s report says. The report also acknowledges that McKinnis said he could not breathe.

“I told him that we could not help him if he continued to fight with officers,” Sheldon wrote.

As the officers wrestled with McKinnis, “one of them had his arm around his neck,” Salazar said during police questioning. “And he kept hollering he couldn’t breathe, he couldn’t breathe. Then I was still hollering at him to stop and the cops told me to sit down.”

After she sat on the curb, Salazar said she could still hear McKinnis tell officers that he could not breathe. Each time she tried to stand, police ordered her to sit back down, she said.

Soon McKinnis’ face began to swell, Sheldon wrote in his report. Eventually he began to calm and officers tried to roll him onto his side to get him off the ground.

“When we tried to roll him, we found that he was non-responsive,” Sheldon wrote.

“The next thing I seen was them working on his heart,” Salazar told police.

After approximately one minute, Sheldon said he found McKinnis had no pulse and was not breathing,0 and another officer began administering CPR.

“From the time I arrived, to the time (McKinnis) quit resisting and became unresponsive, about three minutes passed,” Sheldon wrote.

Around this time Salazar heard an officer tell another to “get her out of here before the press gets here,” her lawsuit says. She was ushered into a police car, where she says she sat for about 30 minutes before she was driven to the police station for questioning.

The autopsy, performed by Dr. Erik Mitchell, found that McKinnis could not breathe because of his body position, which caused his heart to stop.

The manner of McKinnis’ death was accidental, Mitchell wrote.

Though Mitchell found a number of significant bruises in the internal structure of McKinnis’ neck, he could not differentiate between any neck pressure that may have been applied and the effects of “vigorous resuscitation.”

Officers involved said nobody held or compressed McKinnis’ neck, though his legs were restrained and his shoulders were held down, Mitchell wrote.

Combining McKinnis’ large figure, his position on the ground — with his hands behind his back — and pressure on his shoulders, Mitchell wrote “significant restriction of respiration may take place.”

Reviewing police car video of the incident, Mitchell wrote that he could hear McKinnis complain that he could not breathe “though he continues to talk for a time before he becomes unresponsive.”

The video itself “has no clear picture of what transpires physically,” he wrote.

A search of Salazar’s car after the stop turned up neither drugs nor weapons, police reports say.

After the fact

After McKinnis’ death the Kansas City, Kan., Police Department conducted two internal investigations, Couchman, the defense attorney, said. Neither found evidence of criminal wrongdoing or policy violations, he said.

With the exception of one retired officer, all of the other defendants remain employed by the department, Couchman said.

Salazar’s and the McKinnis family’s lawsuits are ongoing and scheduled to go to trial in 2017. Currently, the plaintiffs and defendants are working through the evidence discovery process.

The trial for the McKinnis family’s lawsuit is scheduled for October 2017, while a trial date for Salazar’s lawsuit has not yet been scheduled.