COLUMBIA, S.C. — Federal prosecutors won’t charge a deputy who was recorded tossing a student out of a desk at a South Carolina high school after she refused to give up her cellphone.
The U.S. Justice Department pursues civil rights charges when someone with authority intentionally violates civil rights, not when they use poor judgment or make a mistake, the agency said Friday in a news release.
State prosecutors also decided not to charge Ben Fields in the October 2015 confrontation at Spring Valley High School in Columbia, meaning Friday’s federal action closes any criminal case against the officer.
Fields was fired days after the incident. His boss, Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott, said at the time that he wanted to throw up after seeing a video showing Fields wrap his forearm around the student’s neck, flip her and the desk she was sitting in backward, and then toss the teen toward the front of the room before handcuffing her. The video was made by a classmate. Both girls were charged with disturbing schools, but the state prosecutor dropped the charges at the same time he cleared Fields.
The video has led to changes and reviews in how police officers are used in schools. The U.S. Justice Department sided with the American Civil Liberties Union’s challenge of South Carolina’s disturbing schools law, saying it disproportionally leads to more minority students being charged.
Lott is also pushing South Carolina legislators to change the disturbing schools law, saying it is abused and turns police officers into school disciplinarians.
Getting deputies “out of the roles of discipline and classroom management has already made a significant impact,” Lott said in a statement.
A lawyer who handled the criminal investigation for Fields said the deputy feels vindicated by the decision not to file charges because Fields always thought he was justified under the law using the force he did when the student refused to follow his repeated commands and struck him in the face.
Most of the 15 witnesses interviewed by investigators said the teen was flailing her arms and they either didn’t see or couldn’t tell if she hit the deputy, 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 state prosecutor’s report.
Fields, who had worked as a deputy in schools for seven years, wants to work in law enforcement again, attorney Scott Hayes said.
“He’s a good officer. I hope someone gives him a chance,” Hayes said.
Fields has sued Lott, the sheriff’s department and the Richland 2 School District for defamation, saying his reputation has been ruined and he can’t find a job without additional training because of what Lott said. The suit says the student apologized to Fields shortly after their confrontation, and also notes that when she was in middle school, she hit a police officer.
It also said that an internal affairs investigator determined Fields was justified and didn’t violate police policy, but Lott fired him anyway. And it suggests Lott acted so swiftly to punish Fields because the student was black and Fields is white.
The sheriff’s department and school district said by email that they had no response to the pending litigation.
In North Carolina, state investigators are reviewing whether an officer was justified in slamming a Rolesville High School student in an incident recorded this month . The teen who taped the confrontation said the girl was trying to break up a fight involving her sister, and an attorney for the family of the student said she suffered a concussion and other health problems.