The Conway Police Department released a video Wednesday morning of a February incident in which a man died after being chased by police investigating a shoplifting report at a grocery store.
The 20th Judicial District’s prosecuting attorney determined that there was no evidence of criminal wrongdoing by Conway police officers in the Feb. 4 death of Lionel Morris, 39, of Conway. The death was investigated by the Arkansas State Police.
Morris, who was Black, died after a stun gun was used on him numerous times as he ran from and struggled with officers trying to arrest him. Morris was suspected of shoplifting at the Harp’s Grocery Store at 1120 E. German Lane in Conway.
A state Crime Laboratory report dated Feb. 6 and obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette stated that the cause of Morris’ death was “methamphetamine intoxication with exertion, struggle, restraint and conducted electrical weapon deployment.”
[Video not showing up above? Click here to watch » https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zPXx_8vAwok]
Conway Mayor Bart Castleberry announced Wednesday evening that he asked that the officers involved be placed on paid administrative leave while an internal investigation is conducted.
In the video, two officers — Hannah Fleming and Joshua Kear — can be seen approaching Morris and a woman in an aisle of the store.
The store’s manager had shown the officers an empty box that had previously contained a drone. When they approached Morris and Arnold, officers saw an unboxed drone and a box of half-eaten catfish strips in their cart, according to arrest reports.
Morris told the officers that they intended to pay for the drone, and they took it out of the box only because the box was damaged.
Arnold was handcuffed without incident, but Morris bolted and a chase ensued through the store.
Morris can be seen struggling with Kear numerous times, even placing the officer in a chokehold and grabbing for what Conway Police Chief William Tapley said was a knife “clipped to his pocket.”
Kear said in the report that he attempted to “gain control of the knife rather than use deadly force.”
Kear was able to pull the knife away and throw it out of the way to the west side of the store.
Officer Melissa Smith arrived and also was involved in the struggle.
The stun gun was used on Morris “several more times” as he kept trying to move toward a kitchen knife hanging on a nearby store display, according to the report.
Other officers arrived and subdued Morris.
In the video, Morris yells, “I can’t breathe,” to which an officer replies, “If you can talk, you can breathe. Chill out.”
Morris repeatedly says he can’t breathe, as the officer stands with a foot on Morris’ back.
Tapley said the video shows that Morris was placed “in the recovery position,” and treatment began for injuries he had received.
Medical help was requested before Morris was detained, Tapley said. Paramedics administered CPR.
The incident lasted about 6½ minutes.
“The level of drugs in Mr. Morris’ system and the strain he exerted while struggling with police ultimately contributed to his death,” the police chief said.
“Now that the independent investigation has determined that the officers did not cause Mr. Morris’ death, an internal professional standards investigation will proceed in order to further review details of the case and determine whether there were any policy or rule violations,” Tapley said.
“People may view aspects of this incident and be disturbed. I understand. Use of force in any situation is uncomfortable and should always be analyzed to determine if things can be improved upon,” he said.
Castleberry ordered the release of all video and audio footage of the events to the public and provided the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette with dozens of investigative files on the incident.
“Upon my review of all footage from the scene, I observed some things that were concerning to me,” Castleberry said. “While the Police Department has my full support, there are some behaviors that must change.”
Castleberry said he invited several community leaders earlier Wednesday to review the footage. Those community stakeholders expressed concerns “as it pertains to the national conversation on race and racism.”
In May, George Floyd, a Black man, died in Minneapolis while being pinned down under the knee of a white police officer. The incident sparked protests and riots across the country.
“Given the importance of this topic today, I cannot and will not ignore these concerns,” Castleberry said. “At the outset, let me say that the city of Conway condemns racism and its effects in the strongest possible form. There’s no place for racism in the city of Conway. There is no place for racism. It’s time to have hard conversations.”
Castleberry said he has asked many “of our African American community leaders” to join a working group to review all of the city’s department leaders, policies, training and educational policies.
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