The community organization Reinvest in Conway has announced a vigil tonight for Lionel Morris, the 39-year-old man who died in police custody in February after crying repeatedly “I can’t breathe” while being stepped on and otherwise restrained by multiple officers as a shoplifting suspect in a Harp’s grocery.
Police have been cleared of criminal wrongdoing by the local prosecutor. The mayor has asked for a review of police procedures. The release of the video of more than six minutes of restraint of Morris has given the case national attention.
It naturally drew attention. A black man who couldn’t breathe died as a suspect in a misdemeanor offense after multiple electric shocks, physical blows and restraint. An autopsy showed Morris was under the influence of drugs. Police also say his death was influenced by his resistance to arrest.
Keep an eye on Reinvest in Conway. One of the organizers, Hadiyah Cummings, writes:
RIC is an independent, community-based, multi-racial, multi-generational group of citizens who are committed to making Conway a safer place to live for all of us. We believe the best way to genuine safety is through community-driven initiatives and radical solidarity with our most marginalized neighbors.
After the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, and others, several of us in Conway decided to channel the energy found in protests happening here and across the country into significant policy changes for our city. We have created a 9 Point Plan that works to invest in our community. This involves divesting funds from the Conway Police Department, implementing reform measures, and directing money back into the community.
We actually began our petition by mentioning the Lionel Morris case and have been following it heavily since June. Moreover, I think it is important for you to know that we had received significant push-back from our city government, and they had been actively dismissive of our requests and demands, until the video was released. For context, it is not normal for the department or city to release a detailed briefing and we believe they did so because our campaign recently requested to see the video footage for this case among others.
Reinvest in Conway has done a review of police spending and procedures. It notes the police department has had a steadily increasing budget, now more than $12 million, while the city is spending far less on parks, social services and non-profit programs. Specifically, it notes spending zero on substance abuse, job training, the library and a cultural arts center.
The police were able to deploy a half-dozen or so officers on a shoplifting call that ended in a death sentence. It did teargas demonstrators at a Black Lives Matter rally May 31. Reinvest questions priorities:
Mayor Bart Castleberry touted in a recent statement that the CPD is committed to undergoing “extensive diversity training,” yet funding for this training and conferences comprises only 0.3% ($37,445) of the total CPD budget. Meanwhile, the budget for equipment has nearly tripled over the course of the past three years. On July 13, Mayor Castleberry committed to increasing CPD funding without any evidence or support as to why this should be a priority for the City of Conway.
Even when it is clear where CPD resources are going (riot gear, surveillance drones, weapons, and fancy vehicles). Training is towards the bottom of the list.
De-escalation strategy on shoplifting response might be a good topic of training.
Reforming police policy does not mean abolishing police. Reinvest seems intent on talking about best use of city resources. It shouldn’t be a one-way conversation.