A white South Carolina officer is under investigation by his department, state police and the Justice Department for a violent encounter with a black female high school student. The deputy has a career marked with lawsuits claiming excessive force.
Richland County Deputy Sheriff Ben Fields was suspended without pay on Tuesday, after a video showed an incident where he wrapped his forearm around a female high school student’s neck, flipped her and her desk to the floor backward, and tossed her forward before handcuffing her. The girl had allegedly been asked the leave the classroom and had refused.
The incident has sparked multiple investigations by Spring Valley High School, where the student attended, and Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott, who called the video “disturbing.” Sheriff Lott hoped to have results about Fields’ action within 24 hours to determine whether the deputy will keep his job.
The state police are also conducting their own investigation, as is the Justice Department.
It is unknown when the incident happened, but a second female student who objected to the girl’s treatment was also arrested. Both girls were charged with disturbing schools before being released to their parents.
The student, Niya Kenny, 18, told WLXT that she was in "disbelief" and "crying like a baby" during the incident.
"I know this girl don't got nobody and I couldn't believe this was happening. I had never seen nothing like that in my life, a man use that much force on a little girl," she said of the encounter. "A big man, like 300 pounds of full muscle. I was like 'no way, no way.' You can't do nothing like that to a little girl … she's like five foot six."
The student told local media that the incident started when their teacher called the officer as the young girl chose not to participate in class. The teacher then asked her to leave the classroom. When she refused, the officer was called into the room.
CNN reported that the officer has been sued for excessive force in the past. In 2007, a couple sued Fields, fellow deputy Joseph Clark and Sheriff Lott, alleging false arrest, excessive force and violation of free speech rights two years prior.
According to the complaint, Carlos Edward Martin was driving home when he was pulled over by Fields over an excessive noise complaint. Martin claimed in court documents that Fields “slammed him to the ground, cuffed him, began kicking him, chemically maced him until his clothes were drenched and the contents of the can of mace [sic] was depleted.”
Pictures were taken by Martin’s wife on her cell phone, which Fields confiscated. A jury found in favor of Fields.
Fields is also one of 10 defendants in another case scheduled to go to trial in January. A former Spring Valley High School student, Ashton James Reese, claims he was unlawfully expelled from school in 2013 while Fields was investigating alleged gang activity at the school. Reese claims several offenses in the suit, including lack of due process, negligence, negligent supervision, and a violation of the right to public education, as mandated by state law.
But Fields has some supporters. Another student, Reginald Seabrook, who captured the latest incident on video and posted it YouTube, came out in the officer’s defense on his page.
“The officer in this is a cool dude, he is not Racist!!!. Girl was asked her to put the phone away, but told teacher no and Administrator was called and asked her to come to his office. She told him no, he then called the resource officer,” the YouTube description reads. “When he got there he asked her nicely to get up. Over and over he did nothing wrong. They asked her to get up but she wanted to show off. To some it looks bad but she wanted to prove that she was bad.”
Fields has also been commended for his work. He was given an award of excellence at the Richland Elementary School, where he also worked as school resource officer in 2014. His own department’s newsletter wrote he was “was an exceptional role model to students he serves and protects.”
As to be expected, the race of both people is being played down by officials.
Lt. Curtis Wilson, spokesman for the sheriff’s office, told The Associated Press in an email to "keep in mind this is not a race issue."
South Carolina's NAACP president, Lonnie Randolph, who praised the Justice Department for agreeing to investigate, disagreed.
"To be thrown out of her seat as she was thrown, and dumped on the floor … I don't ever recall a female student who is not of color (being treated this way). It doesn't affect white students," Randolph said.
Sheriff Lott said race won't factor into his evaluation: "It really doesn't matter to me whether that child had been purple," Lott said.
That remark, and another by Lott stating that Fields “has been dating an African American female for some time,” sparked a large reaction online from people who think he said so in order to deflect the idea that race played a role.