The FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice launched a probe Tuesday into the circumstances surrounding a school resource officer’s actions at a high school in South Carolina the day before.
Federal investigators will assist the Richland County Sheriff's Department, which found itself in the center of a national controversy after one of its deputies slammed a student on the ground.
Several students at Spring Valley High School in Columbia used their cellphones to record Richland County Sheriff’s Deputy Ben Fields as he flipped an unidentified girl’s desk over and dragged her across the floor Monday.
Witnesses say the teacher called Fields to the classroom because the student refused to turn over her cellphone after she was caught using it during a lesson.
“The sheriff has asked for special agent in charge from the FBI to be a part of the investigation and also for the U.S. Justice Department’s [Attorney] Will Nettles to also take part in this investigation,” Lt. Curtis Wilson of the Richland County Sheriff's Department said in an interview with Yahoo News on Tuesday. “So an outside entity is also involved — not just our investigators from Internal Affairs.”
By Tuesday, the media’s attention turned to Fields’ varied past with the department. He started working for the Richland County Sheriff’s Department in 2004 and joined the School Resource Officer Program in 2008.
Federal court records obtained by Lancaster Online show that Fields was raised in Lancaster, Pa., and graduated from Lancaster Mennonite High School in 2000, where he played basketball and football.
In addition to serving as a school resource officer, Fields is the defensive line and strength and conditioning coach for the Spring Valley High School varsity football team. Videos on YouTube show the officer weightlifting.
Fields has been the target of at least two lawsuits for allegations of excessive force and negligence, respectively.
In 2007, a couple accused Fields, another deputy and Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott of false arrest, excessive force and violation of free speech rights two years earlier, but the jury ruled in Fields' favor, CNN reported.
According to court documents obtained by the network, Fields approached Carlos Edward Martin after receiving a report of excessive noise. Martin said Fields "slammed him to the ground, cuffed him, began kicking him, and chemically maced him until his clothing was drenched and the contents of the can of mace was [sic] depleted."
In another case, Ashton James Reese, a student at Spring Valley High School, sued Fields and nine others for his allegedly unlawful expulsion in 2013.
The plaintiff claims he was the victim of a lack of due process, negligence, negligent supervision and a violation of the right to public education, the network said.
The official complaint, reproduced on Heavy, says the stated grounds for expulsion were “unlawful assembly of gang activity and assault and battery.”
Reese’s attorneys said Fields “recklessly targets African-American students with allegations of gang membership and criminal gang activity.”
That case is set to go to trial in January 2016.
After the most recent incident, several students at Spring Valley High School took to Twitter to say that Fields has a history of using excessive force against teenagers and that he had even allegedly slammed a pregnant woman to the ground.
I was coming from lunch and saw Deputy Fields slam that pregnant woman. I was frozen in shock at how he was man handling her.
— ANM.❤️ (@FakeAsian__) October 26, 2015
Ppl from Columbia not surprised at the actions of Fields. We surprised it got caught on video.
— Sam Rothstein (@RossGee_) October 26, 2015
— St.Cloud (@_marystcloud) October 26, 2015
Student Tony Robinson Jr., who recorded the incident, told CBS affiliate WLTX that his classmate admitted she took out her phone, but that it was only for a second and she apologized. The force Fields used to apprehend the girl, he said, shocked the other students.
“I’ve never seen anything so nasty looking, so sick to the point that, you know, other students are turning away, don’t know what to do, and are just scared for their lives,” Robinson told the local station. “That’s supposed to be somebody that’s going to protect us. Not somebody that we need to be scared of or afraid.”
After a spate of such incidents, particularly one last June when a cop in Texas used force against a 14-year-old girl at a pool party, much of the outrage has focused on the fact that the officer is white and the student is black.
Civil rights icon Rev. Jesse Jackson has called for Fields to be fired, arrested, charged and sued. He also said the sheriff's department should be on the receiving end of a lawsuit.
— Rev Jesse Jackson Sr (@RevJJackson) October 27, 2015
The Richland Two Black Parents Association, an advocacy organization for students, parents and teachers of Richland School District Two, has applauded the federal government for getting involved so quickly.
“The unfortunate actions of this police officer has revealed what many African American parents have experienced in this district for a very long time,” the group said in a statement. “This is just another example of why we must have an independent assessment from [various] parties including the Department of Justice to examine policies and practices in the District. We applaud the federal government’s inquiry.”
Wilson said that Fields has been placed on leave and is performing administrative duties until the investigation is complete.
“Pending the investigation and the outcome, he’s still employed by the Richland County Sheriff’s Department,” he said.
Over the years, not all of the attention Fields has received has been negative.
In November 2014, Karen Beaman, the principal of Lonnie B. Nelson Elementary School, presented Fields with the Richland School District Two Culture of Excellence Award.
A newsletter from the sheriff’s department reporting on the honor described him as “an exceptional role model to the students he serves and protects.”
Fields could not be reached for comment.