“If you can talk, you can breathe. Chill out,” replied the officer, according to body-cam footage released by the Conway Police Department on Wednesday. “We got an ambulance. "
Minutes later, Morris was “pulseless and unresponsive” when medical personnel arrived. He was pronounced dead while being transported to the hospital.
On Wednesday, the officers involved in Morris’s death were cleared of criminal wrongdoing by the Arkansas State Police and prosecutors. That decision came the same day that police released edited body-cam and security footage that illustrated a chaotic incident in which Morris seemingly made clear repeatedly that he was in medical distress. The story was first reported by KTVH.
“After a thorough review, the prosecutor determined there was no evidence of any criminal wrongdoing by the Conway Police Department or the Conway police officers involved in this unfortunate incident,” Conway Police Chief William Tapley said in a recorded statement.
The medical examiner concluded that Morris died of “methamphetamine intoxication with a combination of exertion, struggle, restraint and conducted electrical weapon deployment,” according to a letter from prosecuting attorney Carol Crews. To explain his death in custody, Tapley pointed to the toxicology report’s findings that Morris had substances including methamphetamine, morphine, amphetamine, opiates and cannabinoids in his system.
“The level of drugs Mr. Morris had in his system and the strain he exerted while struggling with police ultimately contributed to his death,” he said.
The February remarks from the Conway officer preceded similar comments made by Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer who knelt on George Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes in late May. In response to Floyd’s pleas of “I can’t breathe,” Chauvin, who is charged with murder in Floyd’s death, said, “Takes a heck of a lot of oxygen to say that.”
Conway Mayor Bart Castleberry said Wednesday that he had ordered the body-cam footage of at least eight officers to be released to the public. The mayor said he instructed Tapley to place some of the officers involved in the incident on paid leave until the department’s ongoing internal investigation has concluded. It’s unclear how many officers have been placed on leave.
“Upon my review of the footage from the scene, I observed some things that were concerning to me,” Castleberry said in a recorded statement. “While the police department has my full support, there are some behaviors that must change.”
At 4:25 p.m. on Feb. 4, police received a call about an alleged shoplifting in progress at a Harps Food Store. When police made contact with Brandy Arnold and Morris — who had given the officers a fake name — the officers found a drone that had been removed from its packaging, Tapley said. While Arnold was arrested without resistance, Morris began to sprint down the aisle, sparking a police footrace through the supermarket.
As police caught Morris in the produce section of the store, they demanded that he submit to arrest nearly 40 times during the 6½-minute struggle, Tapley said. Police used a Taser on Morris “multiple times,” including when he was on the ground. One officer acknowledged punching Morris two to four times in the back and elbow “in an attempt to gain compliance,” according to KTVH.
“Give me your f---ing hands!” one of the officers said to Morris, threatening to break his wrists.
Morris repeatedly told police he was in medical distress.
“Oh my God, oh my God! Please help me, please!” he yelled. “Help me please! Somebody help me!”
At one point during the struggle, Tapley said Morris reached for a knife clipped to his pocket, and that an officer gained control of it and threw it to a “safe location.” It is unclear in the edited video released Wednesday when the knife appeared or when it was tossed. Sometime during that conflict, Morris allegedly placed an officer in a chokehold, Tapley said.
It was only when additional officers were called in that police were able to subdue Morris. In addition to the officers placing their knees and feet on Morris’s back, body-cam footage shows at least one officer pressing both hands against his head and neck as he’s on the ground.
Throughout the incident, Morris told police that he feared something was wrong with his heart, and implored the officers to call an ambulance. The officers had made a call for emergency medical services for Morris before he was arrested, Tapley said. While police say that Morris was put into a recovery position once he started vomiting, that is not shown in the footage.
At the time of the incident, police said Morris reportedly stopped breathing sometime after he was handcuffed, reported the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
In his statement Wednesday, Tapley suggested that the Conway Police Department could improve its policy in cases such as Morris’s but did not specify how.
“We as the Conway Police Department, and the City of Conway, offer our deepest condolences and heartfelt prayers to the Morris family,” Tapley said.