Richland County Sheriff’s Department Senior Deputy Ben Fields was fired Wednesday, two days after an altercation between him and a female student at Spring Valley High School was caught on video and posted online.
Three videos, shot by students, show Fields throwing the student to the ground and dragging her across the classroom floor. The videos, circulated widely online and on television, sparked national outrage and a civil rights investigation by the FBI and U.S. Justice Department.
Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said the internal investigation involved whether Senior Deputy Fields followed protocol when asked to remove the student from the classroom at about 11 a.m. Monday.
He did not, Lott said.
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Any criminal charges against Fields would come from the FBI and the U.S. Justice Department, Lott said. He asked them to investigate on Monday, and the agencies announced Tuesday they had opened an investigation into Fields’ actions.
Lott said the student was on her cellphone and refused to participate in class. He said she was asked by a teacher, and then by an administrator, to leave the classroom but didn’t. That’s when Fields was called and asked to remove her, Lott said.
Lott said Wednesday that the teacher and the administrator said they didn’t think the deputy used excessive force.
Still, Lott said, Fields did not follow protocol, making the decision to fire him clear.
When he threw her across the room, that’s when I made my decision.
Sheriff Leon Lott
“Deputy Fields did wrong,” Lott said. “... When he threw her across the room, that’s when I made my decision.”
The officer could have used other methods to remove the student, starting with trying to reason with her verbally, said Geoffrey Alpert, a criminology professor at the University of South Carolina. If that doesn’t work, Alpert said, there are other techniques available that fall short of slinging the student on the ground.
"Officers are trained in pressure points and come-along holds, and they're basically using pressure points and twisting the arms,” Alpert said. “It's called pain compliance. If I give enough pain, you're going to do what I want you to do."
Lott said the student should bear responsibility for starting the incident and that charges against both students involved will continue. The student in the altercation and Niya Kenny, 18, a student in the class who filmed one of the cellphone videos, are being charged with disturbing schools, a misdemeanor.
The charge carries up to 90 days in county jail and a fine of up to $1,000.
“What she did doesn’t justify what our deputy did,” Lott said. “I don’t want anybody to think that. It doesn’t justify his actions. But she needs to be held responsible for what she did.”
Some student resource officer procedures could change because of the incident, he said.
“We’re going to talk to the school districts so they understand that when they call us, we’re going to take a law enforcement action,” Lott said. “... Should (the deputy) ever have been called there? ... We’re going to look at that.”
Richland 2 Superintendent Debbie Hamm on Wednesday praised Lott’s decision in a press release.
“We know important work is ahead of us as we thoughtfully and carefully review the decision-making process that may lead to a school resource officer taking the lead in handling a student disruption,” Hamm said. “Conversations that have already started will continue around how we work with the sheriff’s department on improvement and coordination of our work as educators and their work as law enforcement officers.
“Our primary goal is to de-escalate situations through problem-solving and communication techniques, while avoiding actions that escalate and result in unfortunate confrontations. We will continue to move forward with this approach.”
The Richland Two Black Parents Association was also quick to praise Lott’s decision.
“The Richland Two Black Parents Association applauds Sherriff Lott for the release of Deputy Fields from the Richland County Sheriff’s Department,” the group said in a release. “Clearly the video that surfaced depicts the actions of this officer and has revealed a history of these types of activities by him in the past. There was ample evidence that justice should be served. As we have stated, parents continue to be heartbroken. We must continue to support this young lady and shift the focus to the policies and practices of this School District which continues to be of issue.”
Russel Anderson, chairman of the Citizens’ Advisory Council that will review and critique Lott’s decision, said Lott showed “good judgment” in asking for other agencies to address the possible criminality of Fields’ actions.
Anderson, who is black, said he doesn’t believe race was a factor in the altercation.
“Everything that happens is not race-related,” he said. “I think you have to be sure before you cite race as a problem. Just because somebody disobeyed a police officer, the administrator and the teacher doesn’t make it race-related.”
Lott said he learned that all of the work he and his deputies have done in past years helping to build community – with churches, with schools, with residents – has not suffered because of this incident. The community will continue to be strong going forward, he said.
“People expect us to do the right thing,” Lott said.
When deputies don’t, he said: “Citizens should use their cellphone and police the police. That’s their job.”
Citizens should use their cellphone and police the police. That’s their job.
Sheriff Leon Lott
The girl’s lawyer, Columbia’s Todd Rutherford, told ABC’s “Good Morning America” on Wednesday that the student suffered arm, neck, back and head injuries.
Lott said Tuesday he thought she might have suffered no more than a rug burn.
Fields has had three lawsuits filed against him as a deputy. In one, involving an excessive-force allegation before Fields worked in schools, a federal jury found in his favor. Another case was dismissed, the Associated Press reported. The third suit, which is ongoing, alleges Fields wrongly pushed for a Richland 2 student’s expulsion.
Lott said he would not yet release Fields’ personnel records.
Of the complaints previously filed against Fields, none came from the school district, Lott said.