Video shows man tased in the testicles, choked by East Ridge police

Video shows man tased in the testicles, choked by East Ridge police

November 19th, 2018 by Zack Peterson in Local Regional News

Christopher Penn didn't know where he was or what was happening.

The 27-year-old Chattanooga maintenance worker woke up Oct. 21 in Parkridge Medical Center East's intensive care unit with a chipped tooth, a hammering heart, one bruise the size of a grapefruit around his groin and more on his stomach, wrists and sides.

As he regained consciousness, nurses wanted to stick tools down his throat, which was so swollen Penn's voice would come out in a thready scratch for the next three weeks.

The ICU nurses told him East Ridge police officers brought him to the hospital.

"One of the nurses told me I ought to be glad to be here, that they thought I was going to die," Penn said in a recent phone interview. "The police choked me. They tased me."

Document: East Ridge Police Department Use of Force Report

Read the account of Christopher Penn's Oct. 21 arrest

But no officers were waiting when Penn was released from the hospital and went home. Penn only found out later East Ridge police had taken out warrants against him for assaulting two of them and misusing the 911 system, and he has yet to be served.

Penn can't fully recall what footage from police body cameras show vividly: himself, handcuffed, bucking, struggling and kicking as six East Ridge officers try to put him in a patrol car on Oct. 21 around 4 a.m.; one officer putting a Taser to his groin; and another jerking him completely off the ground with a chokehold across his windpipe until a rasping Penn stops struggling and appears to pass out.

When that happened, the officers didn't call for an ambulance. They loaded the unconscious man in a patrol car and drove to the hospital, less than half a mile away. Audio from a bodycam captured an officer asking if Penn was still breathing.

Penn's arrest speaks to a nationwide debate about the use of chokeholds. While some law enforcement trainers say officers need a quick way to stop people who are violent or resisting, critics say chokeholds are too much force and potentially fatal when misapplied.

In 2014, Eric Garner died after New York Police Department officers wrestled him to the ground and put him in a similar hold. Though news accounts say the NYPD banned chokeholds outright in 1993, the city's Civilian Complaint Review Board said in a 2014 report it had received 219 chokehold complaints between July 2013 and June 2014. In Hamilton County and some surrounding areas, officers are taught the "use of force continuum," which coaches them to use the appropriate amount of force, including certain chokeholds, to overcome the level of resistance at the time.

The Times Free Press obtained the body camera footage and the use-of-force report the officers filed through a public records request. The newspaper tried multiple times to ask East Ridge Police Chief J.R. Reed why some details in the report don't match up with the camera footage, if department policies were changed or violated, and whether any of the officers involved officers were disciplined.

In an interview with the Times Free Press, Penn admitted he had been under the influence of cocaine during the arrest, but he said it didn't excuse the chokehold.

Chattanooga attorney Robin Flores, a former police officer who reviewed the police body camera footage at the Times Free Press' request, doesn't believe the chokehold was justified.

"That's excessive force," he said. "Period."

'Why y'all trying to set me up?'

Penn was staying in a home in the 6100 block of Welworth Avenue when he called 911 at 3:48 a.m. Oct. 21. He said he "had been taking pills" and claimed a friend had let in some people who wanted to kill him.

When six East Ridge officers showed up at the home, the friend, Delicia Cosby, said it wasn't the first time Penn had gotten paranoid after taking drugs. Court records showed a similar call to 911 in December 2016.

Though Cosby said Penn was staying with her to watch their daughter while she recovered from surgery, she didn't want him in the house in his drugged-out state. She said he needed drug treatment. But one officer said they couldn't force Penn to do that and suggested jail would solve the problem for the night.

Penn was lying with the little girl in the back bedroom when the police came in. He let officers put him in handcuffs, but he was skeptical. "Why y'all trying to set me up?" he asked.

As officers assured him otherwise and patted him, Penn began shouting into a phone that he'd been speaking into for several minutes.

"Hey, Dad! I'm handcuffed now, and they're going to put a gun on me," he said. "You heard me?"

"Dad!" he repeated.

"Nobody's on the phone," one of the officers said.

'Is he breathing?'

According to the use-of-force report created the day of the incident, a handcuffed Penn tried to run as officers walked him into the living room. The report said officers pushed him down onto a couch, where he grabbed another child.

Officers pulled him up, walked him outside to a patrol car and sat him down inside. But Penn kicked the door open and tried to run again, the report says, so officers tackled him to the ground.

After they picked him up, there was another struggle, and Penn struck an officer in the temple, the report says. Officers then lifted Penn off the ground by his feet and tried to put him in the patrol car, but he kicked one of them in the groin.

The report says an officer then used a "lateral vascular neck restraint."

That move involves pinching the arteries below the ears, which cuts off blood flow and causes a person to briefly pass out. It is different than a chokehold across a person's windpipe.

The body camera footage doesn't entirely match up with the report.

As he entered the living room, Penn, who is black, repeatedly asked why the police wanted to kill him, the footage shows. He panicked, tried to run and fell onto a couch beside a child, bringing an officer down with him.

Later, inside the patrol car, Penn tried to run out but never kicked the door open. Officers grabbed him from the door area and wrestled him to the ground. Face pressed to the asphalt, Penn promised to cooperate, and they lifted him up. But he bucked and thrashed, pulling officers across the street to another car.

The bodycam footage doesn't show police trying to put him in the car feet-first.

When Penn kicked at one of them, an officer pressed a Taser to his groin and held down the trigger for about five seconds. Though use of a Taser is marked on the report, there's no mention of it in the narrative section of the use-of-force report.

After the Taser stun, Penn grimaced and continued to struggle and shout. From behind, an officer wrapped his arm around Penn's neck and lifted him off the ground. Penn rasped several times and then went limp, and officers put him in the car.

"Is he breathing?" someone asked.

"Hey," said an officer, as he leaned into the patrol car and patted Penn on the cheek.

No response.

With someone else shining a light above him, the officer checked Penn's pulse and put his finger under Penn's nose.

"Yup."

It was 4:12 a.m. Officers reported the incident and drove Penn to Parkridge Medical Center East.

'One of us did a chokehold'

At the hospital, one of the officers told a nurse what happened: "It took about six of us to get him in a car, fighting, carrying on. So one of us did a chokehold."

Jarret Crawford has been in law enforcement nearly 50 years and is an instructor at the Police Training Academy at Cleveland State Community College. He told the Times Free Press officers in a heightened state don't always stop and specify the difference between a "chokehold" and a "lateral vascular restraint."

Crawford said the academy trains officers to do lateral vascular restraints in life-threatening situations or when they need about 10 seconds to cuff someone's hands or feet.

John Marraccini, an independent forensic consultant who was formerly chief medical examiner in Palm Beach County, Florida, said the the two holds are different and both can have dangerous consequences: A lack of oxygen from compressing the arteries could cause brain damage. Vomiting after a neck hold could cause material to catch in the throat and fatally choke someone. And Marraccini said lifting someone off the ground in a neck hold could cause spinal damage.

There's an ongoing conversation about how officers should react in these intense situations.

Since 2009, several departments in Hamilton County, including East Ridge, have had officers participate in a 40-hour crisis intervention training program. That program, which is not mandatory, teaches officers to use empathy, listening skills and other nonviolent techniques to calm people down and recognize any mental health factors at play.

Dispatchers also try to alert officers when they're about to encounter someone in an altered mental state, Assistant Chief Danna Vaughn, of the Chattanooga Police Department, previously told the Times Free Press.

In other cities, such as St. Paul, Minnesota, departments have crisis intervention teams that go with officers to these scenes. Chattanooga police recently hired three more victims-service advocates, and some of their work will include crisis response and being on call with patrol.

Janie Parks Varnell, a Chattanooga attorney who helps defend officers charged with misconduct, said the Chattanooga Police Department emphasizes community policing and teaches officers the use of force continuum: De-escalate where possible but use the amount of force a situation requires.

But training differs.

Crawford said the academy in Cleveland teaches a combination of the "use of force continuum" and another method, one-upsmanship: "Whatever the threat facing you is, you go the next step higher [in your response]."

For now, Penn doesn't know if there will be any lasting medical effects and hasn't made any decision about filing a complaint or taking legal action.

"This ain't even how I talk," he rasped over the phone recently. "But my throat, it hurts still and I've been eating liquids [being intoxicated] still don't give them proper cause to do what they did to me."

Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at zpeterson@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @zackpeterson918.


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