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Phoenix Police Department faces two more prone restraint death lawsuits

Posted at 6:53 PM, Dec 31, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-31 20:53:19-05

PHOENIX — After paying a $5 million settlement in the Muhammad Muhaymin in-custody death case, the city of Phoenix continues to defend officer actions in two similar prone restraint death lawsuits.

Muhammad Muhaymin died in 2017. Casey Wells died in 2019. Ramon Timothy Lopez died in 2020. ABC15 reviewed body cam videos, police reports, autopsies, and court documents in all three cases, finding:

  • All three men were exhibiting signs of mental or behavioral health problems at the time of their arrest 
  • None was accused of a serious, violent crime
  • None was armed with a weapon
  • Police said each man resisted while being detained
  • Officers used prone restraint, where the suspect is face down on the ground, while officers put weight on their back
  • Each man became unconscious while in a prone restraint position
  • Autopsies mentioned each man had methamphetamines in their system 
  • Autopsies cited several factors, including police restraint, that contributed to the mens' deaths

Casey Wells was 40 years old when he was discovered standing naked, with his hands raised up, on a residential street in February 2019.

"He was talking to Jesus and praising him," said Wells' mom, Lei Ann Stickney. "He did a lot, whenever he was in an 'episode.'"

Stickney said she didn't know whether her son's 'episodes' were caused by drugs, mental illness, or both. An autopsy determined Wells had methamphetamines in his system and had previously been treated for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

"[Police] don't have to immediately use force, immediately go hands-on, immediately slam a naked person - naked man - onto the pavement, which they know will cause injury," explained Jesse Showalter, an attorney for Wells' mom.

The officers did go hands-on with Wells, although there is no video of their initial physical interaction. By the time an officer wearing a bodycam shows up, Wells is face-down on the ground with approximately six officers holding him down.

"He is detained," one officer is heard telling dispatchers on the radio. Wells is in handcuffs and leg restraints.

A couple of minutes later officers noticed Wells was 'purple,' and they began lifesaving efforts.  Two officers mention "excited delirium," which is a term to describe a controversial syndrome sometimes characterized as a potentially fatal state of extreme agitation and delirium. Excited delirium is often cited in conjunction with police in-custody deaths of people who have a mental illness or have used drugs.

Stickney is suing Phoenix for wrongful death and excessive force. Her lawsuit says Phoenix officers used "more and more force" on a man who they knew was "mentally disturbed" and who "they did not suspect had committed any sort of violent or dangerous crime."

"It has devastated my whole family," Stickney said.

ABC15 asked California-based police consultant Marc Evans about prone restraint and police practices.

"When you use a hobble or restrain someone on their stomach, you immediately turn them to their side or an upright, seated upright position as soon as possible to avoid the effects of positional asphyxiation from officers kneeling on someone's back," Evans said.

In the police bodycam video, an officer's leg is seen on Wells' upper back area. It's unclear for how long this went on. The autopsy showed Wells' neck cartilage was broken and he had bruises.

"[Wells] had deep hematomas in the center of his upper back that are consistent with an officer placing weight at the center of his upper back," Showalter said.

In court documents, lawyers for the city of Phoenix said the officers' actions were "in good faith and without malice" and that Wells' injuries were caused by his "own illegal conduct, including... illicit drug use, resisting arrest, and aggravated assault."

Officers on the scene said Casey hit them and spit blood on them. The officers’ actions in the Casey Wells case were determined to be in policy, a Phoenix police spokesman told ABC15 in an email.

"There's nobody - that we know of - who has been retrained, who has been reprimanded, who even has a note in their file about this," Showalter said.

Stickney hopes to raise awareness and encourage more de-escalation training, especially for Phoenix officers, for the next time they meet a man like Casey Wells.

"Don't look at them like they are an enemy, because it's really their cry for help," Stickney said. "They need someone to just be calm."

"There's nobody - that we know of - who has been retrained, who has been reprimanded, who even has a note in their file about this," Showalter said.

In response to ABC15's questions about training and policy on using prone restraint, Phoenix police issued this statement:

The Phoenix Police Department believes it is important to constantly review and update our practices and policies to make sure we are always improving. Our Center for Continuous Improvement seeks information from other agencies nationwide, and makes recommendations for ongoing training and policy changes in accordance with best practices. Our officers receive, at minimum, annual training on a variety of topics including but not limited to arrest tactics, firearms, less lethal, and de-escalation.  The Phoenix Police Operations Orders is publicly available here operations_orders.pdf (phoenix.gov) [phoenix.gov].  

The family of Ramon Timothy Lopez has also sued the city of Phoenix alleging excessive force and wrongful death. Phoenix police said the internal investigation is still ongoing in regard to Lopez's August 2020 death.