Photo of attorneys, family of Terence Caffey
CALL FOR JUSTICE: Terence Caffey's family members, and the attorneys representing them, met Wednesday to highlight key parts of Caffey's arrest and death. Mary Hennigan

The team of attorneys fighting for justice for the December 2021 death of 30-year-old Terence Caffey say that police officers killed Caffey before they ever put him in a police car, contrary to the official statement from the Pulaski County Sheriff’s office that said Caffey was pronounced dead after transportation to a hospital. The attorneys showed a two-minute compilation of surveillance and body camera footage during a press conference Oct. 19 that highlighted parts of the arrest.

Attorney Ben Crump said that their medical examiner believes that Caffey was dead when officers picked him up off the ground to put him in the patrol car.

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“You have to believe us when we say, ‘I can’t breathe,’” Crump said. “I think we have more humanity at times for animals than we have for Black people saying, ‘I can’t breathe.’ ”

The conference was held at the Allison Memorial Presbyterian Church and Attorney Marion Humphrey Jr. said that about 50 of Caffey’s family members were in attendance. Some wore shirts that said “#TEECAFFEY Justice for Terence Caffey.” Memorial posters leaned against the church’s instruments — they named Caffey “Little Rock’s George Floyd.” The crowd often broke into chants like “No justice, no peace” and a rallying “Justice for Terence Caffey.”

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In the nearly two years since Caffey’s death, his grandmother, Rena Caffey, said that the family’s hearts have broken. She said the only way she’s getting through the days is because she has forgiven the people who killed her grandson. Caffey’s uncle, Nigel Caffey, said that the family “came here today for y’all to see that this was just flat out murder. There’s no other way to put it.”

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Crump said that the next legal steps include sharing videos with the Department of Justice, Civil Rights division. Attorney Kenneth Abbarno said they’re pursuing the civil justice system to hold the officers involved accountable for what he called an “absolute, inhumane atrocity.”

In total, at least nine officers responded to the call at the Movie Tavern on the night of Dec. 10, 2021.

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In March, Caffey’s death was ruled a homicide, but the state medical examiner said the cause of death was from a sickle cell trait-related crisis during the struggle. Sickle cell trait is something that does not typically come with noticeable symptoms, but can lead to serious health issues with high-intensity activity. However, the attorneys on Wednesday said that by definition, homicide means “death by the hands of another.” In this case, Attorney Elizabeth Paige White said the others were the officers. 

Video analysis

Long-form videos of Caffey’s arrest were first released on Sept. 23. There are several hours of footage from vehicle, body and surveillance cameras from Arkansas State Police, the Little Rock Police Department, the Pulaski County Sheriff’s office and the Movie Tavern. The Pulaski County Sheriff’s Office also released a shortened compilation video, which was nearly 43 minutes long.

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The shortened version did not include footage of LRPD Officer Charles Allen pinning Caffey to the ground by his neck, but it is in the hours’ worth of unedited footage. The backseat camera also “failed to capture the entirety of Mr. Caffey’s time in the patrol unity,” the Pulaski County Sheriff’s office wrote over the shortened video. “The camera was sent back to the vendor for retrieval but was unsuccessful.” 

The backseat camera likely captured the moment that Caffey died; when police first put him in the car, he did have slight, noticeable movements. He was moved later after officials deemed he was not breathing.

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All the videos were released mid-afternoon on a Friday, which Crump said was an attempt to “sweep it under the rug.”

Still, Caffey’s attorneys said that they believe footage is missing. The compilation that they showed Wednesday were clips that were all in the original release in September. The footage of Caffey’s arrest is graphic and could be triggering for some. 

Note: This is the compilation that the attorneys pieced together and showed Oct. 19. It is only a small sliver of the entire footage.

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“You can hear Terence moaning, groaning and begging for his life,” White said. “Mr. Caffey pronounced his own death while six officers stood there and watched. When we talk about protect and serve — protect and serve whom?”

At least nine officers responded to the call at the Movie Tavern, including Capt. Mark Swagerty, an off-duty sheriff’s deputy who was first at the scene. In total, four officers from the Pulaski County Sheriff’s office responded — Swagerty, Ryan Crancer, Antonio Swygart and Ricky Wheeler. On Jan. 20, 2022, a press release from the office said that they were all placed on administrative leave, but had already returned to work — Caffey’s arrest was on the night of Dec. 10, 2021. The release also said that Swagerty returned to work, “but is restricted to non-law enforcement duties.”

Four Little Rock officers — Allen, David Abernathy, William Smith and Christian Huestis — also joined. 

One trooper, Andrew Stovall, from the Arkansas State Police arrived, too. ASP spokesperson Bill Sadler said that Stovall left the scene to resume other work before Caffey was taken outside the theater. Sadler said there were no consequences for Stovall’s involvement, and he still is an ASP employee.

During the arrest, officers spoke casually and dismissively told Caffey that he was alright. While in the theater, an officer asked what kind of drugs Caffey was on — he’s mostly unable to speak at this point, but he does say what sounds like “weed.” Throughout the arrest, multiple officers assume Caffey had taken sherm, which is marijuana dipped in PCP, a dissociative drug that has intense effects. No evidence showed that Caffey was on these drugs.

When he said he couldn’t breathe, one officer said, “You’re talking — you’re breathing.” On the ground, officers pinned Caffey down with their knees in his back. In this context, an unfortunately placed tattoo on Officer Allen’s left forearm read “VICTORY”— the ‘t’ as a cross — as he pushed Caffey’s head down. Caffey also pronounced his own death as he was dragged outside the movie theater — “I’m dead.”

The video also shows that Caffey was handcuffed behind his back, and officers were holding down his entire body — on his colostomy bag. Caffey’s hands can be seen grabbing at the officers’ jackets and hands, and one patrol notes that Caffey is biting his shoe.

After almost 10 minutes on the ground, three officers carried Caffey’s limp, seemingly unconscious body to the police car. Before they put him in the car, one says, “Watch that bag” in reference to the colostomy bag. Body cam footage from inside the theater also shows that when the officers arrived, they all acknowledged the bag, but still the officers kept Caffey face down.

Prosecuting attorney letter

A week before the videos were released, Prosecuting Attorney Larry Jegley wrote a letter to Sheriff Eric Higgins on Sept. 16 concerning the investigation of Caffey’s death. This letter was released on a Friday at 5 p.m. Jegley summarized the night’s events and concluded that “Mr. Caffey suffered no other trauma that would have resulted in his death.” No officers involved were considered to be criminally negligent, and because the cause of death was a sickle cell trait, “palliative care would not have reversed or treated his fatal medical crisis.”

Caffey’s attorneys said that he was on a date at the movie theater the night of his death. He came out to buy popcorn and got into a fight with theater employees. One of the workers in the video footage said that she was choked, another said he got elbowed in the face. 

The footage also showed that officers escorted Caffey’s date from the theater and outside while Caffey received medical attention. She expressed that she thought Caffey left to get food, and she didn’t know there had been a fight. The officers asked if she knew if he was on drugs; she said that she didn’t know.

Jegley’s letter determined that the use of force by the theater attendees was justified as Caffey appeared to be the “initial aggressor” in surveillance video. Furthermore, Jegley wrote that Swagerty “was justified in his use of physical force to arrest Mr. Caffey and take him into custody.” As for the other officers that took over once Caffey was outside, including the one who clamped onto Caffey’s neck and put his face to the cement, Jegley said, “At no time did any officer use more than physical force to restrain Mr. Caffey than which is authorized by law.”

When medical attention was called for Caffey, who said twice that he couldn’t breathe, Jegley wrote “the First Responder … took a look at him and was then redirected inside the theater to treat the injuries of The Tavern employees.” In the videos, officers said that Caffey didn’t have any known injuries except a “scrape on the face.”

Later, members from the Little Rock Fire Department rescue team determined that Caffey should be removed for medical attention. Video footage showed the team say Caffey’s eyes are “rolled back” and they note he is not breathing. On Oct. 19, Caffey’s family and attorneys said that because he was handcuffed behind his back, Caffey didn’t get the full effect of the medical procedure. His cuffs were moved to the front of his body after about three minutes of CPR and shortly before Caffey was taken from the scene in an ambulance.

The attorneys for Caffey’s family called for justice last week.

“Why don’t we get consideration from a grand jury when we’re killed?” Crump asked.

Abbarno said, “Somehow, in today’s world, we have a prosecutor’s office who decides that it’s not worthy of charging anyone with a crime. We cannot stop at that. We have to seek accountability, and we have to seek justice.”