Richland County Sheriff’s Department Deputy Ben Fields, at the center of Monday’s firestorm involving a Spring Valley High School student, is no stranger to controversy.
The deputy has been sued at least three times over his alleged actions as a deputy — winning one and having another dismissed. A third suit has yet to go to trial.
Fields was bound to get overly aggressive with someone else because he feels no one can touch him, a Fort Jackson nurse — who sued and lost an excessive-force lawsuit against Fields — told The State newspaper Tuesday.
“I felt like he was a ticking time bomb,” Tashiana Rodgers said of the 34-year-old Richland County school resource officer who was filmed flipping a disruptive Spring Valley High School student out of her classroom chair and pushing her out of the room.
“I was not surprised,” Rodgers said of the now-viral videos.
The mother of a Spring Valley student expelled after a 2013 investigation by Fields had a similar response to the images. “Somebody finally got him on tape,” was Samantha Taylor’s first thought.
The Army retiree said her son, Ashton James Reese, was expelled after Fields and Richland 2 school officials labeled him a gang member. A suit filed by Reese alleges he was improperly expelled.
Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott noted Tuesday that a Richland County jury believed Fields in the use-of-force case brought by Rodgers and her then-husband. “The jury spoke in that lawsuit, not me,” he said.
Fields, the son of the director of Columbia’s Oliver Gospel Mission homeless shelter, received a 2014 Culture of Excellence award from an elementary school where he also was a resource officer. “He ... has proven to be an exceptional role model to the students he serves and protects,” according to a Sheriff’s Department newsletter.
Media outlets have reported Fields’ now-deleted Twitter page describes him as defensive line and strength coach for Spring Valley’s football team. And Lott told reporters Tuesday that Fields has been dating an African-American woman “for quite some time.”
The sheriff said he will make a decision about Fields’ employment sometime Wednesday. The deputy has been on unpaid leave since the videos surfaced.
‘Not learned his lesson’
Rodgers said she was a nursing student at Midlands TEC when, on Oct. 24, 2005, Fields and another deputy answered a noise complaint at the Quail Run Apartments complex where she and her then-husband, Carlos Martin, lived along Percival Road.
Martin was arriving home from work and was not the the person causing the noise disturbance that another tenant had complained about, according to the couple’s lawsuit.
They alleged Fields — angered after Carlos Martin called him “dude” — grabbed him, slammed him to the ground, handcuffed him, kicked him and sprayed him with Mace “until his clothing was drenched.”
The other deputy who was at the apartment complex threw Rodgers, who photographed the confrontation on her mobile phone, against a vehicle, handcuffed her and tossed her to the ground, the couple alleged.
Rodgers said her phone was confiscated and, when it was returned, the photos had been deleted.
The couple was charged with a noise ordinance violation, breach of the peace and felony resisting arrest. Rodgers said a judge dismissed the felony count after a jury trial and the lesser charges were dropped.
“The only thing I was surprised at all about was that he had not learned his lesson,” Rodgers said of Monday’s videos of Fields, which have been widely broadcast and have ignited a firestorm across the state and nation. “He felt like he just couldn’t be touched. He said it to our face in 2005.”
Carlos Martin told the New York Daily News Tuesday that the Spring Valley High images reminded him of the way he was manhandled by the deputy 10 years ago. “I recognized him on the spot,” the 36-year-old Army veteran told the newspaper. “I remembered how big he was.”
‘I was going to get you’
Taylor said Tuesday that her son was near graduation when Fields and Richland 2 administrators kicked him out — along with three other African-American Spring Valley students — after what Fields had labeled a “huge gang fight” behind a Walmart store near the school in Northeast Columbia.
Reese, now 20, sued Fields, the Richland County Sheriff’s Department, the school district and Spring Valley’s then-principal Baron R. Davis in federal court, alleging he was improperly expelled.
That suit is likely to go to trial late this year or early in 2016, said Reggie Lloyd, the attorney.
Taylor said that Fields is abusive in the way he talks to black students. She told The State that she once heard Fields tell her son, “I knew you were a gang-bang thug and that I was going to get you.”
That exchange happened shortly after the school resource officer led the disciplinary action against the students involved in the fight, Taylor said.
Taylor denied her son was in a gang.
In expelling him, the school’s Individual Student Report stated Reese was a member of a gang named Top Flight as well as the nationally known Folk Nation gang by “self-admission.”
In court documents, Reese portrays Fields as someone who “unfairly and recklessly targets African-American students with allegations of gang membership and criminal gang activity.”
Further, Richland 2 officials “routinely abdicate their roles and responsibilities as school administrators by deferring to defendant Fields’ bias and reckless allegations,” the suit alleges.
Taylor said her son’s expulsion had wide consequences. “That meant no scholarship money,” she said. “That meant no college.”
Reese lives at his mother’s home and is in the Army National Guard, having earned with a general equivalency diploma, Taylor said.
A third lawsuit, dismissed in 2009, involved a woman who accused Fields of battery and violating her rights during a 2006 arrest, The Associated Press reported.
Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.
What should have happened?
Neither the Richland County Sheriff’s Department nor Richland 2 officials have spelled out their procedures for removing an unruly student from a classroom. But the Spring Valley High School incident Monday has triggered soul-searching.
▪ School officials said Tuesday the widely viewed video of what happened will prompt school and Sheriff’s Department leaders to discuss training and screening of school resource officers.
▪ Sheriff Leon Lott said he wonders whether a deputy, rather than a school administrator, should have been summoned to remove the unruly student. He also said the state law that puts deputies in the position of taking students from a classroom has “been abused in the past.” The statute “allows too much leeway in the eyes of the beholder,” Lott said.
▪ Deputy Ben Fields received school resource officer training from the state police academy in July 2010, according to academy records. It is a week-long program that Fields completed in Myrtle Beach, said academy spokeswoman Florence McCants.
▪ Fields completed the academy’s basic training program for all officer in the spring of 2005 when it was a nine-week course, McCants said. Basic training has been extended to 12 weeks. His certification and continuing education meet state standards, she said.