The family and attorneys for an Arkansas man who died while detained by police are calling for a federal investigation into the incident.
Terence Caffey was arrested after an altercation with employees at the Movie Tavern in Little Rock on Dec. 10.
Law enforcement officials said he died of a sickle-cell crisis during his arrest. However, his family and their legal team believe the officer’s actions triggered the medical emergency, leading to his death.
“We came here for y’all to see that this was just flat-out murder,” said Terence’s uncle Nigel Caffey during a news conference on Wednesday, Oct. 19. “No other way to put it.”
The deceased man’s family and their attorneys sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice accusing the officers involved of racial prejudice. They also released a nearly 2-minute video with clips of the incident that they say the Pulaski County Sheriff’s Office left out of the 43 minutes worth of footage it released late last month. They accused the office of a cover-up.
“We want you to see the truth,” one of the family’s attorneys, Ben Crump, said. “We want you to see what they did not intend for you to see.”
The sheriff’s office footage shows that a Movie Tavern assistant manager called 911 to report “an extremely violent guest” who was fighting staff.
“The security guard is trying to accost him,” the caller said. “I feel like a gun has been drawn, I don’t know who has it. I got bit. Several of my employees were struck.”
Pulaski County Sheriff’s Office Cpt. Mark Swagerty worked as a security guard at the theater and was trying to pin Caffey on the floor, the caller said. The assistant manager later acknowledged that he did not see the 30-year-old Black man with any weapons but had heard gunshots across the street half an hour before the altercation.
“He’s still putting up a fight, but I think we’re good,” the assistant manager said. “I think he’s secured.”
Authorities said Caffey was having difficulty ordering food on an app on his cellphone. Surveillance footage shows Caffey sitting on the ground in the hallway before throwing his cellphone and keys out of his wallet. Seconds later, he lunges at a theater employee.
About four other people join the fight and try to hold back Caffey. They loosen him when Swagerty arrives. The deputy and about six employees chase Caffey before Swagerty slams him to the ground and restrains him there with his body weight.
Four Little Rock Police officers also responded to another call about the fight, and a second sheriff’s deputy also arrived on the scene to assist Swagerty. The officers congregated for a discussion in the passageway, where a handcuffed Caffey was propped up in a corner. They consider calling a medical response team.
“He’s got some sort of bag on him,” Swagerty says.
The assistant manager also told dispatchers that Caffey had a colostomy bag “coming out of his stomach,” which his attorneys later confirmed.
The officers’ conversation is briefly interrupted by Caffey’s moans.
“You’re all right,” Swagerty says, hushing the man.
“What kind of dope you on, man?” the deputy asks as Caffey continues to pant, moan and gibber. They later accused him of being on mushrooms and fentanyl.
At one point, Caffey keels over as the officers stood around. Two of them turn him over.
“Sit up,” one officer says.
“I can’t,” Caffey says.
“Why can’t you sit?” the officer asks.
“You know why,” Caffey replies
“You was sitting just fine,” one of the officers says.
The officers prop Caffey back up, but he falls over again.
“Y’all secure him in the car, so he stops falling around,” another officer says.
Two officers carry Caffey by his shoulders down the hall. Eventually, two others join in and hold his feet.
The video released by the man’s family captures Caffey showing more signs of distress. The clip of officers carrying him out the theater was not included in the footage released by the sheriff’s office.
“I can’t breathe,” says Caffey as officers carry him through the door.
“You’re talking, you’re breathing,” an officer replies
“I can’t breathe,” Caffey says louder.
“You’re all right. You’re not dead,” the officer replies.
Seconds later, officers press a handcuffed Caffey’s head into the ground restraining him by the neck on his stomach. At one point, one officer places his knees on Caffey’s shoulder.
Although he lets out muffled protests, Caffey does not appear to resist officers while his body was pressed into the ground. At least six officers surround Caffey while he is face-down on the pavement, body-worn video shows.
The new footage also shows the officer declining medical help for Caffey.
“He’s fine,” one officer said.
Both videos show the group lifting Caffey’s limp body from the ground into a patrol vehicle with his head dangling onto his neck. The sheriff’s office said Caffey was on the ground for 8 minutes.
Video footage shows Caffey opened his mouth and twisted his neck briefly after he was placed in the vehicle. Authorities said the rear camera did not capture “the entirety” of his time there.
“The camera was sent back to the vendor for data retrieval but was unsuccessful,” the sheriff’s office said.
The sheriff’s office said fire rescue checked on Caffey after 3 minutes, and he did not stop breathing until after he was placed in the back of the patrol vehicle. He also had a large bloody gash on his temple. The officers and fire rescue tried to resuscitate him, but he never recovered.
The officers involved were initially placed on administrative leave but have returned to their posts. Pulaski County prosecuting attorney Larry Jegley announced on Sept. 16 that none of the officers were criminally culpable in Caffey’s death and no charges would be brought against theater employees.
The state medical examiner ruled Caffey’s death a homicide caused by “sickle cell trait-related sickling crisis during exertion, struggle and restraint.” Jegley said multiple medical experts weighed in on the results.
Jegley admitted that attributing Caffey’s death to sickle cell is rare and controversial citing a May 2021 study by the American Society of Hematology that states it is “medically inaccurate to claim sickle cell crisis as the cause of death based solely on the presence of sickle cells at autopsy.”
“Sudden death is an extraordinarily rare occurrence in sickle cell trait and finding sickle cell trait is unlike to supersede other inflict traumas as the cause or major factor in death,” the study states.
However, Jegley said the medical examiner’s diagnosis was not based on the presence of the cells alone but on “the entirety of the medicolegal death investigation.”
Crump believes the prosecutor should’ve presented the case to a grand jury.
On Wednesday, Caffey’s family and supporters held posters referring to the man as “Little Rock’s George Floyd.”
Floyd, killed by Minneapolis police in May 2020, also told police he could not breathe. A medical examiner also listed sickle-cell trait on Floyd’s initial autopsy, along with other medical conditions.
“Why won’t the police believe Black people when we say ‘I can’t breathe’?” Crump asked.