As several Arkansas police officers pinned Lionel Morris on the floor of Harps Food Store in February, with the knee of one officer pressing into his back, the 39-year-old begged for help, repeatedly crying out, “I can’t breathe.”
The Conway Police Department said that on Feb. 4, the supermarket reported that two men had removed a drone from its packaging. When officers arrived on the scene, Morris ran away, prompting a chase around the food store—until he was tased multiple times and punched at least twice.
But newly released body-camera footage shows the officers continued to use excessive force on Morris, even after he clearly said he was in duress, yelling about his heart and stating he couldn’t breathe during an encounter that lasted more than six minutes.
“If you can talk, you can breathe. Chill out,” one Conway police officer responded. “We got an ambulance.” Minutes later, Morris was “pulseless and unresponsive.” He was pronounced dead while being transported to a local hospital.
The officers involved in the February incident were cleared of criminal wrongdoing by the Arkansas State Police and local prosecutors on Wednesday. The shocking decision came the same day the supermarket’s security footage and the edited body-camera footage were released, showing a chaotic incident in which Morris clearly stated he was in duress.
“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 Wednesday recorded statement in which he offered his “deepest condolences” to Morris’ family.
Calling the incident “concerning,” Conway Mayor Bart Castleberry said Wednesday he instructed Tapley to place some of the officers on paid leave until an internal investigation is complete. He also ordered the bodycam footage of at least eight officers to be released.
“While the police department has my full support, there are some behaviors that must change,” Castleberry said, though he didn’t say how many officers were placed on leave. “There is no place for racism in the City of Conway. It is time to have hard conversations.”
Authorities say that at around 4:25 p.m. on Feb. 4, officers responded to a call about alleged shoplifting at Harps Food Store. When they arrived, they approached Morris—who originally gave a fake name—and Brandy Arnold, and found the drone removed from its packaging, Tapley said. The chief said Arnold was arrested without incident but Morris ran “to avoid being taken into custody.”
In the bodycam footage, Morris is seen running down the supermarket aisle housing cake-box mix and being chased until officers caught up with him in the produce section. Almost immediately, Morris is heard repeating “help me” as the officer wearing the body-camera struggles with the 39-year-old. Tapley said officers demanded Morris stop resisting “nearly 40 times” before tasing him “multiple times in an attempt to gain control.”
Out of view of the camera, Morris can be heard screaming and loud bangs can be heard as officers attempt to gain control. According to KTVH, an officer said in an original police report that, while trying to get Morris on the ground, “his head inadvertently hit a shelf causing a minor laceration.” That same officer later tased the 39-year-old in the back while he was already on the ground.
Another officer admitted he punched Morris several times in the back and elbow “in an attempt to gain compliance,” the report states.
“Give me your fucking hands!” one of the officers is heard saying to Morris, before threatening to break his wrists. “Oh my God, oh my God! Please help me, please!” Morris is heard yelling, coming back into view of the body-camera with several officers holding onto him as he says his heart is in duress. “Help me please! Somebody help me!”
Tapley claimed that, at one point, Morris reached for a knife that was “clipped to his pocket.” “As the struggle continued, Morris dragged one of the officers to the ground, positioned himself on top of the officer, and placed the officer in a chokehold,” the chief said.
“Instead of using deadly force, the officer grabbed the knife and threw it from the immediate area,” Tapley added. But it was not clear from the edited video released Wednesday if Morris had a knife, when it was thrown, or if the 39-year-old placed an officer in a chokehold.
Tapley said that about five minutes into the episode, more officers arrived and subdued Morris. The footage shows that in addition to a swarm of officers around Morris, at least one officer is seen pressing both hands against the 39-year-old’s head and neck as he is face down on the ground. Several others can be seen placing their knees and feet on his back.
“A call for emergency medical services was made by officers before handcuffs were secure,” Tapley said. In the video, Morris can be heard yelling for help as officers tell him to “stop moving.”
At one point, a female officer yells at Morris to “put his head back on the floor and straighten your leg out” as he starts to move. “Put your head down and be still,” she adds. Seconds later, Morris yells out several times that he can’t breathe.
According to prosecutors who examined the case, Morris was put into a “recovery position” when he started to vomit, though that is not visible in the released footage. According to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, police said Morris stopped breathing sometime after he was handcuffed.
The medical examiner later concluded that Morris died of “methamphetamine intoxication with a combination of exertion, struggle, restraint and conducted electrical weapon deployment,” prosecuting attorney Carol Crews said in a letter about the investigation. The toxicology report added that Morris tested positive for meth, cannabinoids, opiates, morphine, and amphetamines and that he suffered "no life-threatening injuries." The report, which concluded the manner of death was “undetermined,” noted that barb and stun gun wounds were found on his torso.
“The level of drugs Mr. Morris had in his system and the strain he exerted while struggling with police ultimately contributed to his death,” Tapley said.
Despite the independent investigation concluding that Conway police officers “did not cause Mr. Morris’ death,” Tapley did note that his department “can do better.”
“Use of force in any situation is uncomfortable and should be analyzed to determine if things could be reviewed upon,” he said. “In reviewing this incident, I recognize that there are things as a police department that we can do better. And these are things that we will do better."