Cindi Ross Scoppe

Scoppe: Of course they shouldn’t be prosecuted, but not for this reason

A photo from the Oct 26 video shows then-Richland County Sheriff’s Deputy Ben Fields removing a student from her desk at Spring Valley High School. after she refused to hand over her cell phone or leave the class.
A photo from the Oct 26 video shows then-Richland County Sheriff’s Deputy Ben Fields removing a student from her desk at Spring Valley High School. after she refused to hand over her cell phone or leave the class. AP

IT WOULD BE EASY to see 5th Circuit Solicitor Dan Johnson’s handling of the Spring Valley High School mess as politically calculated:

By dropping the charges against the student who refused to give up her cell phone and leave the classroom and against the student who videoed the episode and encouraged others to do likewise, he could mollify voters who saw this as a disturbing example of the criminalization of school discipline.

He also could mollify voters who saw Ben Fields as a scapegoat by declining to bring charges against the then-Richland County sheriff’s deputy, who was fired but not criminally charged after he tossed the student out of her desk and slid her across the floor.

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And in fact, the time he took to reach those decisions — more than 10 months after the Oct. 26 episode — lends credence to the idea that this was a political rather than legal decision.

Yes, the solicitor’s office is busy, but this was an extraordinarily high-profile matter and an extraordinarily straightforward matter — it involved reviewing a few videos, interviewing 14 people who were all readily available and then making a judgment call. And it took … more than 10 months.

Two months maybe, since the solicitor had other work to do. But 10 months? Ten months during which two students faced criminal charges, and hearings were scheduled and postponed and, one assumes, legal bills mounted? (Since an FBI review continues, Mr. Fields would have remained in legal limbo even if Mr. Johnson hadn’t dragged this out.)

Despite the delay, though, and the perfect political parallelism, it’s difficult to criticize the no-prosecution decision, for one simple reason: It was the right decision.

It was clear from the start that neither student should have been charged with a crime. It was nearly as clear that the deputy should not be charged.

So while this is not what you’d call a happy ending — there probably couldn’t be one — it was probably the best ending we could hope for. Well, with one caveat. But we’ll get to that in a moment.

The student who refused to obey teacher, administrator and police orders should have been disciplined. But assuming that no one is in danger, it should not be a crime — which is very different from a school discipline matter — to sass a teacher or refuse to hand over a phone or leave a class. And the law that allows it to be treated as a crime needs to be changed.

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The student who videoed the encounter, Niya Kenny, … well, I’m not sure she even should have been disciplined — that depends on what she said and how she said it. But clearly, she should not have been charged with a crime. Just like police shouldn’t be able to charge anyone with a crime for videoing an encounter with the police. Free society and all that.

The picture of Mr. Fields that emerges from that too-long investigation is more sympathetic than the one that emerged from the video: Witnesses saw less force and more justification, a deputy trying to be more gentle than he appeared but failing. Even the harsher view from the video, though, did not look like a crime. It looked like bad judgment … a police officer who resorted to force rather than taking a minute or two to think of alternatives to removing the student from her desk — like, say, dragging the student-filled desk into the hallway.

Whether the deputy needed to be fired was a tougher call, depending on whether Mr. Fields was acting within the norms of the department or outside of them and what if any concerns already existed about him.

What is clear is that this was entirely Sheriff Leon Lott’s decision to make.

What’s also clear is that too many sheriffs and police chiefs don’t make that decision — even in cases that are far more clear-cut than this. In cases where police kill people for simply trying to speed away from the blue lights.

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What’s clear is that the reason so many black people are so angry at police — the reason more white people ought to be angry — is that on those very rare occasions when cops cross the line, they aren’t fired. They aren’t even disciplined. They are supported by their superiors. Treated as though they are the ones being victimized because the public says they ought to be punished for killing people who aren’t armed and aren’t a threat.

So the one caveat to the whole “good ending” narrative is Solicitor Johnson’s implication that Sheriff Lott compromised the prosecution of the students by firing Mr. Fields.

If there was anything political about Mr. Johnson’s decision, it was making excuses for dropping charges that never should have been brought. Because in so doing, he sent the larger message that police officials should lend knee-jerk support to officers who make bad decisions.

They absolutely should not.

We are hurt far more by police allowing someone to keep wearing a badge who shouldn’t than we ever will be by a prosecution being compromised because police admit that one of their own made a mistake.

Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at cscoppe@thestate.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.

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