Inquiry as video shows officer dragging student across class
South Carolina deputy on leave after video shows violent arrest of black female student
Authorities in South Carolina are investigating an encounter captured on two videos that went viral Monday afternoon that show a white school police officer in a Columbia classroom grabbing an African-American student by the neck, flipping her backward as she sat at her desk, then dragging and throwing her across the floor.
The videos, apparently shot by students in the classroom, were picked up by national news outlets and ricocheted across social media platforms, sparking a new round of angry and anguished debate over how police officers treat African-Americans.
The Richland County sheriff, Leon Lott, told a South Carolina television station that the officer, a deputy with the Sheriff’s Department, had been responding to a disruptive student who was refusing to leave class at Spring Valley High School, a campus of about 2,000 students that is about 52 per cent black and 30 per cent white.
Officials did not release the name of either the student or the deputy. But students identified the officer as Ben Fields, who is listed on the school district’s website as one of the two officers assigned to the high school. His biography on the website said he also coaches the school football team’s defensive line and is the team’s strength and conditioning coach.
Mr Fields did not respond to a voicemail message left at his home on Monday. Debbie Hamm, superintendent of Richland County School District Two, said officials were “deeply concerned” about the confrontation. School and district officials were “working closely and in full co-operation” with county sheriff’s investigators, she said. Ms Hamm also said the officer was not allowed to work at any district schools pending the outcome of the investigation.
A statement from Mr Lott said officials in his department were “aware of the incident, and are looking into the circumstances that took place this afternoon, and will have more once we look at the information in its entirety”.
The videos of the classroom encounter were reminiscent of a cellphone video this year that captured a white police officer in McKinney, Texas, shoving a black teenage girl in a bikini to the ground at a gathering at a neighborhood swimming pool. The police in that instance had been responding to reports of a fight and a disturbance at a pool party, and the officer resigned soon afterward.
What happens next is barely visible because the camera’s view is blocked by other students and desks, but the officer is heard panting and telling the girl several times, “Give me your hands.” In another video, he can be heard telling another student, “I’ll put you in jail next.” Lt Curtis Wilson, a sheriff’s spokesman, said the girl and a male student were arrested after the confrontation, according to The State, a South Carolina newspaper. They were charged with disturbing the peace, and the girl was released to the custody of her parents, according to the television station WLTX.
The confrontation drew outrage as the videos spread. Victoria Middleton, executive director for the South Carolina branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, said: “There is no justification whatsoever for treating a child like this. Regardless of the reason for the officer’s actions, such egregious use of force – against young people who are sitting in their classrooms –is outrageous. School should be a place to learn and grow, not a place to be brutalised.”
“We must take action to address the criminalisation of children in South Carolina, especially at school,” she added.
Mr Fields joined the Sheriff’s Department in 2004 and became a school resource officer in 2008, according to a department newsletter from November, which also noted his receiving the school district’s “Culture of Excellence Award”. Besides Spring Valley High School he was also assigned to Lonnie B Nelson Elementary School, the newsletter said, “and has proven to be an exceptional role model to the students he serves and protects”.
But two lawsuits filed in federal court paint a different picture of the sheriff’s deputy. The most recent, filed in November 2013 by a former Spring Valley student, Ashton Reese, charges Mr Fields and the school district of violating his civil rights. Mr Reese was expelled in February 2013 for “unlawful assembly of gang activity and assault and battery” after an investigation by the officer concluded that he had been involved in a fight behind a store near the school, according to the complaint filed with the Columbia division of US district court.
Unfair and reckless
In 2007, Carlos Martin and his wife, Tashiana Martin, sued Mr Fields, Lt Lott and another deputy, Robert Clark, for violating their civil rights during a routine investigation of a noise complaint. Mr Martin said in court papers that Mr Fields stopped him as he was getting out of his car at home and grew angry when he addressed him as “dude”, despite Mr Martin’s assurances that he did not intend to be disrespectful.
A short time later, the officer slammed Mr Martin to the ground, handcuffed and began kicking him, according to the complaint, which also said the officer emptied a can of pepper spray that drenched Mr Martin’s clothes.
The complaint also said Mr Fields confiscated a mobile phone that Tashiana Martin had been using to record the encounter, threw her against a vehicle, handcuffed her, threw her to the ground and then into his police car. As she was being driven away, the complaint said, Mr Fields made lewd comments about taking her to a Motel 6.
A jury ruled in favour of the deputies in 2010. The couple appealed the verdict, but a judge affirmed the lower-court ruling.
Richland County School District Two, which has about 27,000 students, covers a racially diverse area of the suburbs northeast of Columbia, the state capital, said Calvin Jackson, one of four black members of the seven member school board. About 16,100 students in the district are black, about 7,100 are white and 2,150 are Hispanics. Mr Jackson said the “overwhelming majority” of parents tend to be pleased with the direction of the school system, but he was “outraged” and “angered” by the video.
New York Times