PHOENIX — The family of a 40-year-old man struggling with mental illness and using methamphetamine who died during a struggle with Phoenix police last year has filed a lawsuit against the city.
Police body camera footage during the aftermath of the 2019 incident suggests a Phoenix police officer tased 40-year-old Casey Wells while he was already face-down and in handcuffs.
Police had already discharged tasers four times on Wells during the physical struggle, according to the police report.
Homeowners of a north Phoenix neighborhood called 911 on February 4, 2019, to report “a white male… standing in the middle of the roadway yelling incoherently and doing yoga poses.”
Wells stripped naked and was not cooperative with police when they arrived, according to the police report.
Within six minutes of the first officers arriving, a witness describes Wells refusing to be handcuffed.
“One officer was on Wells’ back… and a second officer interjected and the two officers fell to the ground,” according to a witness statement.
Other officers arrived and tried to control Wells, eventually tasing him four times before getting him into handcuffs face-first on the ground.
During the struggle, Wells also punched an officer in the face and spat on him, according to police reports.
The struggle, however, was not recorded on body camera as the first officers responding did not have body cameras in early 2019.
After Wells was on the ground, another officer arrived with a body camera on.
According to the body camera video, the officer can be heard declaring Wells detained while five officers are on top of Wells.
That’s when another taser is heard being deployed directly on Wells’ body for five to six seconds.
The lawsuit accuses officers of retaliating against Wells.
“That was so unnecessary,” said Lei Ann Stickney, Casey’s mother. “He’s already handcuffed. He’s got a restraint on him. He’s face-down on the ground and you want to tase him too?”
Phoenix police say the officers acted within policy and cannot comment further because of litigation.
An attorney for Stickney said he believes the lawsuit represents a national problem.
“What we’re seeing, again and again, is situations where police are using techniques or tactics on restrained people, people that don’t pose a threat, and those tactics are resulting in deaths,” said Jesse Showalter, attorney for the family.
Officers noticed Wells was unconscious, and could not identify a pulse, so they attempted to resuscitate him, as seen in the body camera video and documented in the police report.
Wells never regained consciousness and died two days later. The medical examiner concluded he died from meth, psychosis, heart disease and “physical restraint… and possible extrinsic chest compression.”
The cartilage around Well’s neck was fractured, the medical examiner’s report details.
The lawsuit also alleges police knew that Wells was suffering from mental psychosis or drug-induced delusion and that police could have done more to de-escalate the situation before trying to take Wells into custody.
“When there is a naked man on the street praising Jesus out in the open in broad daylight, c’mon that should tell you there’s something not right, emotionally or mentally,” said Stickney.
The Justice Department previously praised Phoenix Police for its de-escalation training of officers.
Those standards go beyond AZPOST standards, according to a department spokesperson. How the officers applied that training with Wells, and why their tactics didn’t work, isn’t clear.
Police reported that Wells had previously been treated for mental illness after a similar stop in 2017. According to the police report, on Sept. 22, 2017, officers located Wells at a bus stop. In the report, the 2017 incident described Wells as “dancing around with no clothes on, high on some kind of drugs.” At that time, he was transported to HonorHealth Deer Valley for evaluation, the report states.
Attorneys for Wells’ family also allege the department has not been upfront about the case, accusing the department of needlessly delaying the release of the body camera video for more than a year.
“And that was after repeated public records requests and only after a public records lawsuit was filed,” Showalter said.
The family is asking for an unspecified amount of money for suffering associated with Wells’ death.