The family of a man who died while being detained by police is calling for authorities to release video footage of the incident.
Authorities said Terence Caffey “went into medical distress” while in custody and was taken to the hospital, where he died. His family and attorneys said they saw footage from the arrest, and there are gaps in the police reports.
His attorneys said records also show Caffey died of blunt force issues, and they suspect it was because of excessive force. His death has been ruled a homicide by the medical examiners.
Caffey’s family and attorneys held a rally on March 15 demanding that authorities release body-worn camera and surveillance footage. “Don’t say no mo.’ Just release the video,” they chanted outside of the Allison Memorial Presbyterian Church in Little Rock.
“The road to justice starts with transparency,” said attorney Ben Crump, who is representing Caffey’s family. “The video has to be released because once it’s out, the court of public opinion won’t let them sweep this under the rug.”
Crump said Caffey, 30, had just completed training to become a U.S. Postal Service worker on Dec. 10 in Little Rock. He went on a movie date where he got into a fight with Movie Tavern employees while trying to buy popcorn. The details of what prompted the fight have not been released.
An off-duty Pulaski County Sheriff’s deputy who worked security at the theater was called to break up the fight. Caffey’s uncle said the video shows his nephew was fighting with five or six employees when the deputy came in, knocked Caffey to the floor, and restrained him with his knee.
The deputy then arrested Caffey with help from other officers who also held him down. While he was being escorted out, he told officers he could not breathe. Then Caffey became unresponsive, according to family and attorneys who watched the footage.
“He told them, ‘I’m dying,'” attorney Marion Humphrey Jr. said.
The Pulaski County Sheriff’s Office had initially placed Cpt. Mark Swagerty and deputies Ryan Crancer, Antonio Swygart and Ricky Wheeler on administrative leave pending an investigation into the case.
Four Little Rock Police officers also assisted the deputy with the arrest. Little Rock Police spokesman Mark Edwards told reporters the officers were placed on administrative leave preceding an investigation, which is now closed. They are all now back at work. Swagerty is now on desk-duty, THV11 reports.
The Pulaski County Sheriff’s Office has not responded to Atlanta Black Star’s public record’s request for all files associated with Caffey’s arrest.
However, in a statement to Arkansas Times, sheriff’s officials said the deputy went into the movie theater and saw Caffey fighting with several employees. Officials said when the deputy attempted to arrest Caffey, “a struggle ensued.”
“The subject was placed into custody. Medical personnel were called to the scene to check on the subject and the deputy,” officials said.
“While medical personnel were evaluating the subject, he went into medical distress and was transported to Baptist Hospital in Little Rock. While at the hospital, the subject was pronounced dead.”
According to reports, Caffey had a “sickle cell trait-related sickling crisis during exertion, struggle, and restraint,” which led to his death. He went into respiratory distress and could not be revived, according to the autopsy report.
Research shows sickle cell trait has been historically used to mischaracterize the deaths of Black people.
According to a New York Times report, the deaths in custody of at least 45 Black people were falsely attributed to sickle cell trait in the past 25 years. George Floyd’s first autopsy had linked his death to a history of heart disease, substance-use disorder and sickle cell trait. Floyd later became the face of the movement against excessive police force after he was killed by Minneapolis police in May 2020.
Crump said the incident reports do not add up because at 150 pounds and less than 6 feet tall, Caffey had a small frame. He was also required to wear a colostomy bag, a plastic bag that collects fecal matter from the digestive tract through an opening in the abdominal wall.
“They have ruled this was a homicide,” family attorney Kenneth Abbarno said. “In those documents, what we find is that there were blunt force injuries that happened. Bruises, battered, bleeding.”
“They had a man in distress, handcuffed and face down. He becomes unresponsive while people are holding him down and restraining him,” Abbarno said.