COLUMBIA, S.C. — A sheriff’s deputy fired for tossing a student across a South Carolina classroom as he tried to arrest her after she refused to put away her cellphone should get his job back, his attorney said in a letter Friday.
But Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott, who said he “wanted to throw up” when he first saw the video, won’t rehire deputy Ben Fields in part because a federal investigation into his actions continues, spokesman Curtis Wilson said.
Fields should get his job back because a state prosecutor dropped the charges against him from last October’s incident, which shows his use of some force was justified, attorney Scott Hayes said in a letter released to media outlets.
“There was clearly a rush to judgment by the public and public officials immediately following the incident,” Fields wrote in his letter, mirroring Solicitor Dan Johnson’s conclusions in his report when he dropped the charges last month.
But Johnson, who served as Lott’s chief deputy before becoming Richland County’s chief prosecutor, said in his report Lott was justified firing Fields even if his actions weren’t criminal.
Fields, who had worked as a deputy in schools for seven years, was recorded by students at Spring Valley High School flipping the then 16-year-old student to the floor and dragging her across a classroom after she refused to give her cellphone to her teacher last October.
In his letter, Hayes said Fields was allowed to use force on the teen after she hit him in the face. Fields said she did hit him in a statement to investigators, and the student wrote “yeah I did” in a text message to a friend who asked if she had hit the officer, according to the prosecutor’s report.
Most of the 15 witnesses interviewed said the teen was flailing her arms and they either didn’t see or couldn’t tell if she hit the deputy.
Johnson also dropped a disrupting schools charge against the student and a second teen who taped the incident. He said a big reason for dropping all the charges is that all the media attention forced Lott to fire Fields quickly and school district officials into their own action against their employees.
“The reality, from a prosecutorial standpoint, is that these administrative actions taken prior to the completion of the investigation have been injurious to the prosecution” of the cases, Johnson wrote.
In his news conference after firing the deputy, Lott said the student disrupted class and had some responsibility. But “we want students held accountable — not crucified,” the sheriff said.