This article was produced in partnership with The Daily Memphian and WREG Channel 3.
Antonio Strawder screamed in pain. With his arms handcuffed behind his back, he wriggled on his stomach in mud as he braced for another jolt from a Memphis Police Department-issued Taser.
“I can’t move!’’ Strawder cried as an officer ordered him to get up.
The man in the blue uniform was insistent.
“I need you to comply,’’ patrolman Otto Kiehl said as his finger rested on the Taser’s trigger.
Kiehl shocked Strawder at least three times that gray late-winter day in 2016 — twice as the suspect lay in cuffs on the ground — while arresting him for a minor offense: Operating a motor vehicle without a driver’s license.
‘Taser Face‘: Another MPD officer uses taser so frequently he earns nickname from colleagues.
The incident was captured by a bystander on cellphone video footage and uncovered this month in an investigation by opens in a new windowThe Institute, The Daily Memphian and opens in a new windowWREG Channel 3 News.
“It was torture,’’ said Strawder’s friend, Curtis Reese, who says he witnessed the encounter and remains troubled by it.
Editor’s note: The video below may be upsetting to sensitive viewers.
Kiehl received a 10-day suspension for his actions that day, a punishment that barely slowed the 19-year MPD veteran: He was promoted four months after the Taser incident. Now 62, he retired a few weeks ago as a $66,000-a-year sergeant.
And despite lingering questions about Kiehl’s conduct, the 2016 Taser incident wasn’t referred to prosecutors to see if any criminal laws might have been broken, records show.
The incident is one of seven severe use-of-force cases identified in The Institute and Daily Memphian’s running investigation that MPD declined to refer to prosecutors for review. Those cases include a 2015 opens in a new windowincident in which three officers beat a handcuffed prisoner; another in 2019 when an officer repeatedly opens in a new windowsprayed a handcuffed suspect in the face with a chemical agent; and the case of an officer who used his opens in a new windowTaser on suspects while making a series of minor arrests in 2018 and 2019.
In the wake of the police killing of opens in a new windowGeorge Floyd in Minneapolis in May, the news organizations opens in a new windowasked to review MPD’s internal investigations of excessive force between 2015 and 2020. Though many of the 90 cases reviewed so far involve less-serious and at times bogus allegations, records reveal a opens in a new windowpattern that legal experts have called troubling: Actions that raise questions of possible assault or other criminal conduct are treated as mere violations of policy.
“There should be a structure for accountability,’’ said opens in a new windowKenneth B. Nunn, a professor at the University of Florida’s Levin College of Law who studies criminal law and procedure.
“There should be a review of these matters by an independent and external agent, whether it would be the district attorney there in Memphis or whether it would be someone at the state level who would be doing that,” he said.
MPD did not respond to a request to interview Director opens in a new windowMichael Rallings, who has a hand in determining whether to treat internal investigations of misconduct as administrative matters or as more serious concerns with criminal implications.
For his part, Kiehl said he considers his actions “tactically, legally and morally acceptable.”
“I had a very resisting suspect with a half a dozen hostile family members at my back,” Kiehl told a journalist last week. “To the best of my knowledge, what I did was well within the parameters of the Tennessee code.”
Misdemeanor arrest gone awry
When Antonio Strawder drove his red Crown Victoria into his driveway on March 13, 2016, two Memphis police officers were waiting for him. Officer Otto Kiehl and his partner, Joshua Hartman, were investigating a hit-and-run accident involving a blue car.
The officers said they’d spotted such a car nearby – though it had no damage on it – and were casing the Douglass Community vicinity when the familiar Strawder drove up.
“I’ve encountered him several times,’’ Kiehl later told internal investigators of Strawder, who is currently serving three years probation as a felon in possession of a handgun.
In fact, Kiehl had ticketed Strawder a month earlier for speeding and driving on a revoked license. The traffic incident was still fresh in his mind when Kiehl saw Strawder pull up and start walking toward his house. The officer asked Strawder if he still lacked a valid driver’s license.
“He was calling my name to come here,’’ Strawder, now 31, said in an interview. “So, I had walked in the house, in the door. And I was like, ‘What’d I do?’ He like, ‘You ain’t supposed to be driving. Come out.’ ’’
That’s when the situation got dicey.
Legally, police can opens in a new windowpursue fleeing subjects suspected of dangerous felonies inside of private residences. It’s murkier when it comes to misdemeanor arrests.
Nonetheless, Kiehl followed Strawder inside.
“The door was open, he walked in. I walked in behind him,’’ the officer told internal investigators.
Kiehl was known for bold and controversial action. He made news in opens in a new window2011 as one of five officers who fired weapons in the fatal police shooting of a carjacking suspect. That same year he stirred public ire for handcuffing a 12-year-old opens in a new windowskateboarder for not wearing a helmet – an incident captured in a viral video.
So, when Kiehl admitted going into Strawder’s house, internal affairs detectives Dionne Rogers and Ronald Polk pressed him on it.
“OK, and can you explain to me why you went into the house?’’ one of the detectives asked.
“To get Strawder to come back out,’’ Kiehl answered.
“What was your intentions?’’ the detective inquired.
“To issue him a misdemeanor citation.’’
Such a ticket – a citation in lieu of arrest – doesn’t require going to jail.
Yet when Strawder willingly followed the officer back outside, the situation began to unravel.
“I needed to put him in the backseat of my car and he was resisting getting into the car, which was why I originally deployed the Taser,’’ said Kiehl, who maintained Strawder “pulled away’’ from him twice.
Strawder tells a different story.
“He already had the Taser out following me,’’ Strawder told a journalist – a statement that resembles what he’d told MPD investigators four years earlier: “He took (the Taser) out when I was in the house.’’
Even now, Strawder said, he gets an aching pain in his right thigh where he was hit by one of the Taser’s darts.
“Man, I didn’t even run. I had a whole chance to run,’’ he said as he stood in his driveway, just feet from where the incident happened. “I ain’t done nothing. I was right here. On my property.’’
Strawder had told detectives the incident blew up when he refused to talk to Kiehl. He said he turned away from the officer, choosing to address his partner, Hartman.
“I had walked like a couple steps. We were walking to the car, towards the car. And I guess when I, when I turned around, I get hit with the Taser,’’ he said.
A ‘torturous application’
Neither Kiehl nor Hartman wore body cameras that day. Several witnesses – mostly Strawder’s friends and family members who’d congregated on his front lawn – later gave statements.
The sole video in police files – a brief, two-minute clip – came from the cellphone camera of a witness standing nearby in Strawder’s yard.
As the video starts, Strawder is on his stomach. He’s handcuffed behind the back.
He’s crying loudly in pain.
As Hartman kneels overtop him, Kiehl can be seen standing above. At first, only Kiehl’s back is seen. But as the scene unfolds, it’s clear the officer is holding a Taser. Two long wires extend from the weapon down to the prone Strawder.
One of the wires leads to a barbed probe that’s burrowed under the skin in his back. The other is in the back of Strawder’s thigh. When a Taser is opens in a new windowfired, it shoots two small darts as far as 25 feet or more. They’re designed to opens in a new windowhook into a subject to create a circuit that delivers between 840 and 1,440 volts of electricity.
Kiehl later told investigators he’d initially fired his Taser at Strawder twice as the uncomplying subject stood before him, before he was handcuffed. The first shot had no effect. Only one dart had entered his body. But when Kiehl reloaded and fired a second shot a circuit was made and the electrical current stunned Strawder.
He fell to the ground.
As the video rolls, Kiehl is talking to the now-handcuffed Strawder. It’s difficult to hear over the shouts of onlookers, but the officer appears to be telling Strawder to get up.
About 38 seconds into the video, Kiehl fires another rattling jolt of electricity down into Strawder. The blast appears to last as long as 2-3 seconds. Strawder screams again and rolls from a prone position over onto his back.
“He ain’t resisting!’’ an onlooker yells as Officer Hartman pulls Strawder to a sitting position and appears to try to coax him to his feet.
Kiehl leans over about a minute into the clip and appears to grab Strawder by the shoulder to get his attention.
“There is no more pain,’’ the officer calmly advises the howling detainee.
Kiehl then takes a couple steps backward.
“OK. I need you to comply,’’ he says. “Otherwise…’’
Again, the officer’s words are drowned out by shouts from the crowd.
Officer Hartman seems to caution Kiehl not to fire the Taser again. Hartman holds an outstretched palm toward his partner and tells him, “He’s coming. He’s coming,’’ indicating Strawder is coming around and will get up.
Hartman leans over and tries to pull Strawder up by his arm from his sitting position.
“I can’t move!’’ Strawder moans. “I can’t move!’’
“Yes, he can,’’ Kiehl interjects.
This time Strawder looks directly up at Kiehl and says again, “I can’t move!’’
Kiehl takes another half-step backward.
“One more time,’’ the officer firmly insists. “You need to get up. You need to get up now.’’
A moment later Kiehl fires another burst. Strawder falls to his back and rocks side to side.
After a few seconds Strawder lifts himself to his elbows. Hartman then assists Strawder, pulling him to his feet.
Even then, a quick rattle is heard. Did Kiehl fire the Taser yet again? It’s hard to tell.
Internal investigators said data from Kiehl’s Taser showed the “trigger was pulled twice and the arc button was pressed twice,’’ but the data report could not be located among records released by the city.
Kiehl said in an interview he fired three jolts of electricity into Strawder, one a “full cycle’’ of five seconds and the other two short bursts.
But overall, the video is troubling, said law professor Nunn.
“(To put) your finger on that button and just hold it there for an extended period of time seems to be unnecessary and even torturous application of force,’’ said Nunn, who reviewed the video at The Institute’s request. “And I was very concerned about that.’’
Following a lengthy internal investigation, MPD supervisors suspended Kiehl for 10 days – five for violating the department’s use-of-force regulations and another five for failing to comply with weapons regulations.
Among concerns, Kiehl failed to follow MPD’s use-of-force opens in a new windowcontinuum, a policy requiring steps officers must take when they encounter resistance. Those steps start with verbal warnings and commands to use of physical combat techniques and chemical agents to use of impact weapons such as batons and, finally, as a last resort, use of deadly force.
Specifically, investigators faulted Kiehl for failing to first use “empty-hand control techniques’’ – physically grabbing or holding a noncompliant individual or even punching or kicking a subject who is violently resisting.
“At no time did (Strawder) appear to be violent, dangerous or overly combative,’’ Inspectional Services Bureau detectives concluded in a 16-page summary.
Kiehl’s actions posed difficult questions for investigators.
Why didn’t he and his partner simply lift their handcuffed suspect off the ground? Or wait for other officers?
“They should have picked him up, placed him in the squad car,’’ law professor Nunn said. “They could have called backup for that. There was no reason for them to’’ use the Taser, the professor said.
Kiehl told investigators his actions were influenced by the “very, very vocal crowd’’ that had gathered, and he felt a need to quickly control Strawder and remove him from the scene.
Hartman seemed to agree.
“I had a sense that Mr. Strawder was playing for the crowd that was gathering around us, perhaps as if he made a large enough scene it would stop there,’’ Hartman told detectives.
Still, Kiehl couldn’t explain to the investigators why he didn’t immediately call for backup.
“It’s an error in judgment. I should have immediately done so,’’ he said.
Asked why he didn’t use “some type of control technique’’ to get the handcuffed Strawder “up off the ground,’’ Kiehl said simply, “I can’t answer that. There’s – that’s a good question.’’
(Kiehl claimed months later at an administrative hearing that he had injured his shoulder and “lost confidence in his ability to handle the much younger and stronger suspect.”)
Kiehl said he believed Strawder was “flopping around’’ on the ground after he’d been Taser-stunned “strictly for the purpose of making a scene.’’ The officer maintained “there is no residual effect’’ after the Taser’s current is disengaged.
“The moment the energy stops the effect stops instantaneously,’’ he said.
Instructional opens in a new windowguides tell a different story about the opens in a new windowTaser X2, the model of Conducted Electrical Weapon (CEW) manufactured by opens in a new windowAxon Enterprise Inc. and used by MPD.
“In determining the need for additional exposed cycles, the officer should be aware that an exposed individual may not be able to respond to verbal commands during or immediately after CEW exposure,’’ MPD policy says.
Tasers are designed to override the body’s motor functions by disrupting the neurological communication between the brain and muscles. A Taser is described as a weapon opens in a new window“less lethal’’ than firearms but it can cause intense opens in a new windowpain and is potentially deadly. opens in a new windowAmnesty International has reported hundreds of deaths. Some opens in a new windowcourts have limited how Tasers can be used in police work.
MPD policy explicitly forbids the use of a Taser “in any punitive or coercive manner’’ or to deploy it “on a handcuffed or secured individual absent an overly combative behavior that may cause harm to the officer or others.’’
Though Nunn said the case should have been reviewed by prosecutors, he’s uncertain if there’s strong enough evidence to file criminal charges, largely because one can’t see what Strawder did before the bystander started filming.
“I don’t know if he attacked anybody. I don’t know if he was, you know, being threatening in some way,’’ Nunn said.
(One witness, a neighbor, told investigators Strawder was “acting a fool’’ that day, cursing and flailing his arms and “snatching away’’ – refusing to be handcuffed – before he was finally electo-stunned. However, questions surround her statement. Detectives interviewed her nearly three months after the incident after Kiehl provided her phone number, records show. Detectives aborted an earlier attempt to interview her after she admitted she’d just smoked marijuana.)
Then too, many police departments simply lack the will to pursue criminal opens in a new windowcharges against officers for lower-level excessive force cases that don’t result in death, he said.
Nunn said he doubts the opens in a new windowMinneapolis officers would have been prosecuted if Floyd hadn’t died. That death came following physical restraint used by an officer with a history of complaints involving misconduct and use of force.
“There’s a widespread problem around the country that we don’t treat these minor issues as seriously as we should,’’ he said.
Few cases referred
Since 2015, MPD and the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office have been referring all fatal officer-involved opens in a new windowshootings to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and the District Attorney’s Office for review.
But records suggest cases that don’t involve firearms or fatalities are seldom referred.
Among 90 MPD use-of-force investigations between 2015 and 2020 reviewed so far, 89 weren’t referred to prosecutors, records show. Available records don’t make it clear whether the other case had been referred or not.
Many other case files have not been released nearly three months after the news organizations first asked for them.
Excessive force allegations are investigated by MPD’s Inspectional Services Bureau or ISB, which operates separate Internal Affairs and Security Squad units. By policy, cases involving administrative violations are reviewed by Internal Affairs. The Security Squad explores potential criminal allegations “which may be reviewed by the Shelby County (District) Attorney General’s Office that may or may not result in the case being presented to a Grand Jury,’’ the policy says.
Among the 90 cases reviewed by the news organizations, all but two were handled by the Internal Affairs unit. They include the 2015 beating of handcuffed prisoner Daniel Jefferson.
The Security Squad explored the 2019 case of Officer William Skelton who repeatedly sprayed a handcuffed suspected in the face with pepper spray, yet records and interviews show the case wasn’t referred to prosecutors. Skelton has since resigned.
By policy, ISB reports directly to the Police Director. The ISB commander is required to meet weekly with the director or a designee to discuss pending and new cases.
Like so many others, the Kiehl-Strawder Taser incident was investigated by Internal Affairs, not the Security Squad. Records show the matter was not referred to prosecutors.
“This case file was not submitted to the (District) Attorney General for review,’’ a 16-page case summary says on page seven. District Attorney spokesman Larry Buser said in an email that officials there could find no record the file had been referred. Additionally, U.S. Attorney spokeswoman Cherri Green said that office had not “opened an investigative case in the matter’’ in 2016 but said officials could not confirm any possible “ongoing investigations”.
Though MPD appears to be referring few excessive-force cases, a case referred by the Sheriff’s Office resulted in criminal charges last month against former deputy Justin Fitzgibbon. The officer came under investigation after a citizen, Marvin Moore, filed a complaint.
Moore had been charged with misdemeanor assault following a traffic stop on Dec. 31 when Fitzgibbon claimed Moore ignored commands to place his hands behind his back. Fitzgibbon alleged Moore “pulled away and resisted,’’ and that he “had to use force to control the suspect,’’ according to a press release by the District Attorney’s Office.
“Video from the deputy’s body-worn camera did not support his allegation that Moore had assaulted him,’’ the release said.
The charge against Moore has since been dismissed.
Fitzgibbon now is charged with official oppression, a felony, and misdemeanor assault.