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 sparked national outrage and a civil rights investigation by the FBI and U.S. Justice Department. The videos circulated widely online and on television.
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.
Criminal charges, if there are any, would come from the FBI and the U.S. Justice Department, Lott said. On Monday, he asked them to investigate. Those agencies announced Tuesday they had opened a civil rights investigation into Fields’ actions.
Lott said the girl was on her cellphone and not participating 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 the deputy was called and asked to remove her, he said.
Lott said Wednesday that the teacher and the administrator said they didn’t think the deputy used excessive force.
Still, he said, Fields did not follow protocol.
“I have a problem with that,” he said.
He wasn’t a hard decision, he said.
“Deputy Fields did wrong,” Lott said. “... When he threw her across the room, that’s when I made my decision.”
Schools are for learning, Lott said. School resource officers are in schools to help students learn, he said.
“But, sometimes, deputies do wrong,” he said. “... He should not have thrown the student.”
Still, the student disrupted that school, that class, Lott said.
“Let’s not forget that. What she did doesn’t justify what our deputy did. But she needs to be held responsible.”
Some procedures could change, 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.”
The Richland Two Black Parents Association was 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.”
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.”
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 release Fields’ personnel records as yet.
He did say some complaints had been filed against him none came from the school district.