Family of Police Slain Ex-NFL Player Files Lawsuit Against City of Phoenix Seeking Justice, Money

Ekom Udofia was 33 years old and a former National Football League defensive lineman who had spiraled into mental illnesses and crisis on the streets of Phoenix.
Ekom Udofia was 33 years old and a former National Football League defensive lineman who had spiraled into mental illnesses and crisis on the streets of Phoenix. Getty Images
The city of Phoenix might have to pay yet another grieving family of a Black man killed by its police officers in the street.

A state court lawsuit filed last November against the Phoenix Police Department and several police officers alleging misconduct and civil rights violations in the shooting death of Ekom Udofia in 2020, has been transferred to federal court.

Advocates complain that it is yet another stain on the city's reputation for those who took oaths to protect and serve, not shoot first and ask for forgiveness later. And it's happening during a major police recruitment effort, with some officers being offered thousands in incentive pay to join law enforcement.

That means Phoenix taxpayers might be on the hook for millions if the lawsuit filed by the family of Udofia is successful.

He was 33 years old and a former National Football League defensive lineman who had spiraled into mental illnesses and crisis on the streets of Phoenix.

He was shot and killed by Phoenix Police Department officers in November 2020, several months into the coronavirus pandemic before vaccines were readily available to the public and much of the world was still in lockdown.

Udofia was carrying a BB gun at the time — which officers believed to be a handgun — and did not drop it after officers requested he do so, according to the lawsuit.

Richard Davis, attorney with Mesch Clark Rothschild in Tucson, and a Black man himself, is the lead attorney on the case.

Phoenix police “battered Ekom and caused his wrongful death,” by mistaking the man, who was not in his right mind, for a threat, Davis wrote in the lawsuit.

Udofia “was not resisting arrest, was not attempting to escape by use of a deadly weapon... nor was he threatening the use of deadly physical force.”

Still, Phoenix officers shot Udofia dozens of times, using both live ammunition and “less-lethal” rounds, like pepper-spray balls.

"Ekom was unnecessarily and inhumanely peppered by as many as thirty projectiles, including baton rounds, sage rounds, stun bags and pepper ball rounds as he lay on the ground," Davis wrote.

After being shot and killed a police dog dragged him several feet, "as he lay dying in the street," the attorney wrote.

Udofia's parents live in Scottsdale and the lawsuit was moved to federal court at the end of February.

The lawsuit names four officers on the Phoenix police force: Lance Wisuri, Steve Mead, Nathaniel Hansen, and Ryan Hoffrichter as defendants.

All are still on the force, according to the city of Phoenix’s most recent employee records.

Ann Justus, a spokesperson for the Phoenix police department, said it would be “inappropriate” for the department to comment on pending litigation.

When Phoenix New Times inquired about the status of any criminal investigations or internal investigations into the incident, Justus said that the department would not release that information unless a formal records request was submitted.

New Times has submitted a request for these records, but the Phoenix police department regularly delays in providing such records for months.

Representatives from the union representing Phoenix police officers, the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association, as well as the union representing the agency's sergeants and lieutenants, did not return multiple inquiries from New Times.

The incident that led to Udofia’s death began early in the morning on November 30 two years ago. Around 2 a.m., Phoenix police received a call about a man who was darting in front of traffic around 23rd Avenue and Indian School Road.

An employee of a nearby convenience store had reported a “big guy dancing in the middle of the street and attempting to jump onto cars as they passed on,” according to audio released by the city. He appeared to be on drugs, the employee said.

Udofia was “clearly mentally disturbed,” attorneys wrote in court records.

Two officers responded initially. Immediately, they saw that he was holding a BB gun.

Body camera footage and security camera video of the incident shows Udofia walking slowly down the middle of the street towards their cruiser, his hands by his sides. As he approaches officers beg him to drop the gun.

“I've got to shoot him, bro,” one of the officers said, as the man continued to walk towards them. The other replied: “Shoot him, shoot him, shoot him.”

Other officers arrived to find Udofia lying on the ground. He had been shot four times in his chest and his shoulder, though still had the BB gun in his possession. In their attempts to get Udofia to part with the gun, officers used stun bags and pepper ball rounds, shot him again in the thigh, and then sicced a police dog on him.

Though his family’s attorneys acknowledge that Udofia did not comply with commands to drop the BB gun, they argue that Arizona is an open-carry state. Furthermore, attorneys argue, he did not point the gun towards the officers, nor threaten to do so.

This is a point of dispute. In its initial press release regarding the shooting, Phoenix police wrote that the first responding officers, Hoffrichter and Wisuri, did not shoot until Udofia pointed the gun at them.

When more officers arrived, police said, they shot him with less-lethal rounds until he pointed the gun at them again. Then, the officers used live ammunition.

However, in security video of the moments leading up to the first shots, Udofia does not appear to ever point the gun at officers. Body camera footage that the Phoenix police released to the public does not show Udofia’s hands at that time, or later on, when he is shot while on the ground.

The family claims that because of this, his death was preventable. “But for the negligence that set the stage for the shooting, it would not have occurred,” attorneys wrote.

Jacob Raiford, a lead organizer with the Neighborhood Organized Crisis Assistance Program Coalition, or NOCAP, has spent the last year pushing the city of Phoenix to divert mental health and substance abuse calls away from the police department.

Udofia's case, he said, was an example of what has resulted, too often, when Phoenix officers responded to calls that could be deescalated other ways.

"You could prevent issues like what happened to that gentlemen and other cases throughout Phoenix police's history," he said, noting that Udofia is one of many who have lost their lives at the hands of Phoenix officers.

Last year, Phoenix committed to building out its "community assistance program," which sends crisis intervention teams and social workers to certain mental health calls. NOCAP has pushed the city to make this program an independent department, which so far, has not yet come to fruition.

Udofia grew up with his family in Scottsdale. He went on to play football at Stanford University, where he studied public policy, and then joined the NFL for a time. He was a defensive lineman for the Cincinnati Bengals and the New Orleans Saints.

Although his family did not return New Times' inquiries for this article, Udofia was remembered as a “gentle giant,” and beloved friend by friends and family members after his death.

In the years before his death, he had struggled with mental health issues — a serious issue particularly among retired football players — and had some run-ins with law-enforcement. Court records show that in 2017 and 2019, Udofia had pleaded guilty to a few low-level charges, including resisting arrest and disorderly conduct.

The lawsuit is one of many spurred by shootings by Phoenix officers. The department is currently under investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice, in part for its use of deadly force.

Most recently, the city reached a $5 million settlement in a case over the death of Muhammad Muhaymin, who died while being arrested on a misdemeanor warrant, crying out that he could not breathe.

The Phoenix police department regularly counts more police shootings than any agency in the state of Arizona. In 2018, Phoenix police officers shot at more people than any other department in the nation.

Phoenix police shootings were down, though, in 2021. According to an analysis by the Arizona Republic, Phoenix officers reported shooting at 13 people last year. The department had averaged 23 shootings per year over the decade prior.

Still, they outranked every other agency in the state.

"We have a police department that has historically avoided accountability and transparency," said Viri Hernandez, executive director of Poder in Action, a community advocacy group.

Years of data, she said, have shown racial disparities in the Phoenix police's use of force and arrests. Yet, little has changed, she said.

"On the contrary, what we're seeing is police departments and police unions actively now advocating for laws that continue to decrease accountability," she said.

It was "not a surprise," she said, that the officers involved in this incident have continued on the force.
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Katya Schwenk is a staff writer for Phoenix New Times. Originally from Burlington, Vermont, she now covers issues ranging from policing to far-right politics here in Phoenix. She has worked as a breaking news correspondent in Rabat, Morocco, for Morocco World News, a government technology reporter for Scoop News Group in Washington, D.C., and a local reporter in Vermont for VTDigger. Her freelance work has been published in Business Insider, the Intercept, and the American Prospect, among other places.
Contact: Katya Schwenk