Crime & Courts

Richland Co. Sheriff Leon Lott’s statement on firing of deputy Ben Fields

Staff reports

Richland County sheriff terminates deputy involved in school altercation

Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott announced Wednesday that Deputy Ben Fields is being terminated from the department for the circumstances surrounding the arrest of a student at Spring Valley High School.
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Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott announced Wednesday that Deputy Ben Fields is being terminated from the department for the circumstances surrounding the arrest of a student at Spring Valley High School.

Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott’s prepared statement during a news conference Wednesday to announce he has fired Deputy Ben Fields for his actions during the classroom arrest of a Spring Valley High School student Monday.

Let me begin by stating that nothing I say today or in any other statements or actions should be construed to condone or justify some of the actions by Deputy Ben Fields at Spring Valley High School on Monday. Certain behavior by him is not what I expect of any of my deputies at any time and especially not in a school setting dealing with a female juvenile. I will not give any excuse for parts of his actions, nor attempt to justify them.

As in any incident videos only provide a snapshot of the event. In order to do a complete and thorough investigation we must look at the entire incident. This includes how we got to the incident. While two videos have been widely played there were also at least one other video. All videos are examined in addition to getting first hand accounts from witnesses present. This is how the full picture of events is established.

The Sheriffs Departments responsibility is to conduct an internal investigation as to whether the deputy violated any policies of the sheriffs department. In this case that is all we are doing on the investigative side. As previously stated, Deputy Fields was placed on administrative suspension as soon as the incident and video was brought to my attention. Additionally, upon getting preliminary information on the incident I contacted the Special Agent in charge of the FBI in South Carolina on Monday. This call was to request the FBI conduct their investigation into the incident for any criminal violations. This phone call was followed up very early Tuesday morning with a written request to FBI SAC David Thomas. Additionally, a written request was made to the US Attorney for South Carolina, William Nettles, asking that his office and the Justice Department also be part of this Federal review. The Sheriffs department is fully cooperating with both of these agencies as they conduct their investigation and review.

Statements from the teacher and school administrator revealed that the student was disrupting the class and refused their instructions to leave class. SRO Fields was called and asked by the administrator to remove the student. The SRO attempted verbal commands and the student failed to follow the Deputy's instructions; at that time the deputy used physical force. Both the teacher and school administrator voiced support for the SRO and his actions.

The third video shows the student striking Deputy Fields in the face with her fist when his hand makes the initial contact with her arm. At that point the arrest escalates to Deputy Fields using force to arrest her. In my opinion Deputy Fields could have accomplished the arrest or handled the situation without some of the actions he did. The one that concerns me the most was the throwing of the student across the floor. I do not feel that was proper and follows our policy and procedures. Our training unit verified that the maneuver was not based on training or acceptable. Based on his actions, Deputy Fields has been terminated as a Deputy Sheriff with the Richland County Sheriff's Department.

RCSD has 87 school resource deputies that are assigned to every elementary, middle and high school in Richland County. Everyday these Deputies do a fantastic job building positive relationships with students, faculty and parents. Monday's actions by Deputy Fields was not typical of the job I, parents, schools, students and the community expect of our SROs.

It is my responsibility now to continue the relationship and trust we have between the community and the sheriffs department. This is accomplished by first taking responsibility for any unapproved actions, act swiftly and with transparency, publicly address the situation and request an independent agency to look at the incident.

All of the above has either been done or is in the process of being accomplished. I have reached out to numerous elected officials to include local, state and federal as well as religious leaders. In an effort to publicly address the community I am in contact with community leaders to schedule public meetings to answer questions from parents, as well as students and community members.

Our schools are institutions for education, SROs are part of that process. When classrooms are disrupted by a student then the teacher can not perform his/her job and other students can not learn. We must not lose sight that this incident started with a disruptive student. While the student’s actions do not justify some of the Deputy's actions, the school and administration must deal with that issue. Our schools must have an educational environment. That is the responsibility of everyone: parents, students, teachers, administrators and SROs. When one element fails then the process of educating our students fail.

This has been a very difficult situation for me to address as the Sheriff but also as a parent. I not only answer to the citizens of RichlandCounty, I have to address this incident with my 7th grade daughter. I hope all parents take the opportunity that I have to talk with your children. They need to understand sometimes mistakes are made by students and those that wear the badge of a law enforcement officer. This incident should be used as a learning opportunity for us all to move forward in a positive way while addressing the issues that are present. Denying the severity of the event or creating unnecessary conflicts will only continue this event to burn bridges instead of building them for everyone.

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