St. Petersburg officer disciplined for using Taser on man lying on ground

St. Petersburg Police Chief Anthony Holloway announced Thursday that three officers were disciplined in two recent incidents involving excessive use of force. [Times (2015)]
St. Petersburg Police Chief Anthony Holloway announced Thursday that three officers were disciplined in two recent incidents involving excessive use of force. [Times (2015)]
Published July 25, 2019

ST. PETERSBURG — Two city police officers were disciplined for using excessive force in two recent incidents, and a third officer was disciplined for failing to report one of those incidents.

In the most serious incident, a St. Petersburg police officer was suspended for two weeks without pay for using his Taser electroshock device to stun a man who other officers said was lying on the ground, arms outstretched, after surrendering on May 2.

In the other case, a St. Petersburg police officer and a Pinellas sheriff's deputy both struck a man during an April 5 arrest. However, in that case, the St. Petersburg Police Department disciplined its officer — but the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office decided not to discipline its deputy.

St. Petersburg police Chief Anthony Holloway found the incidents so troubling that he ordered his entire police force to be retrained in defensive tactics and in how to take complaints from citizens, he announced at a Thursday news conference.

"This is not a good day for us," Holloway said. "This shouldn't have happened, and it shouldn't happen again."

Both incidents involve the Violent Crimes Task Force, also known as VCTF in police circles, which is a team of officers from the St. Petersburg and Clearwater police agencies and the Sheriff's Office. Both of the St. Petersburg officers who were disciplined were members of the task force.

Officer Andrew Viehmann was suspended in the May incident. It was his first day on the task force.

David Baker, 36, was accused of recklessly speeding away from a deputy trying to pull him over. He drove on a flat tire as a helicopter tracked him from above. The arrest report says he then ran away from the disabled truck, and refused to obey orders to stop, so officers used Tasers to stun him.

Baker said he surrendered to officers, obeyed their commands to get onto the ground and on his stomach and had his hands in the air when Viehmann used a Taser electroshock device to stun him. Baker said the incident raised his blood pressure, which led to him being placed in the jail's medical unit.

Viehmann told investigators he could see a pocket knife in Baker's pocket, and that he was not "immediately obeying" his commands. However, another officer who witnessed the incident said Baker had surrendered and repeatedly said "don't kill me, don't kill me" when Viehmann used his Taser on him.

Officer Seth Maranville was Viehmann's partner and witnessed the incident. He told investigators he was "shocked" and believed there was "no obvious reason" to use a Taser on Baker, that there were no indications he was about to run or turn violent.

The command review board sustained a charge of unnecessary use of force against Viehmann. He will receive a disciplinary notice, a two-week unpaid suspension, and be re-trained in the proper use of force. Maranville was disciplined for failing to report the incident, and had a letter placed in his file.

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Canine Officer Matthew Kirchgraber was disciplined in the April 5 arrest of Tyrin Thompson on a misdemeanor charge of resisting an officer without violence. He was assisting Pinellas sheriff's Deputy Richard Curry. Police officials released a video of the arrest.

The task force was attempting to pull over a 2010 Lexus sedan because of illegal window tint, according to the arrest report, but it drove off. The sheriff's helicopter tracked the vehicle down to 47th Street S and Fourth Avenue S. Thompson ran from the vehicle and tried to enter a home in the 4700 block of Fourth Ave. S.

In the arrest report — which was written by Curry — Thompson was accused of tensing his body and trying to push himself off the ground in an attempt to get away. "I was trying to get to my auntie house," Thompson told the officers.

The video shows Thompson laying on the ground, his arms outstretched, as the two officers approach him.

Thompson appears to lift himself as they run up to him. Curry is first, punching the man, followed by Kirchgraber's blows. Kirchgraber told investigators Thompson wouldn't put his hands behind his back, that he was tensing himself and keeping his hands under his body, near his waistband. The officer "was fearful of what he may be reaching for and delivered the strikes to gain control of his arm and secure him in handcuffs," the report said, calling the punches "distractionary blows."

"I'd do the same thing again tomorrow ...," Kirchgraber told investigators. "No one was injured, the suspect was taken into custody."

The review board sustained the allegation against him. Holloway said officers are trained in the police academy to use distractionary blows only as a last resort, when they feel they face immediate harm.

"At the time the officer thought that was the best thing for him to do," Holloway said. "Command staff reviewed it and said no, he should have done something else."

Thompson's brother, Shrodderick Pritchett, said his complaints about the arrest were rebuffed by supervisors at the scene, so he filed a formal complaint. Kirchgraber's sergeant said she didn't know Pritchett was trying to file a complaint, and was not disciplined in the case.