SC sheriff releases video of mentally ill inmate's death, vows to overhaul policy
Too many "fellow officers take on mental health responsibilities that they are not equipped to handle," said Sheriff Kristin Graziano
By Meg Kinnard
COLUMBIA, S.C. — In newly released video of the January death of a South Carolina inmate with mental health issues, deputies are seen repeatedly deploying stun guns and kneeling on the man's back before he stops moving. An hour later, officials said, the man was pronounced dead.
On Thursday, Charleston County authorities released dozens of video clips related to the death of Jamal Sutherland, a 31-year-old Black man booked into the jail on Jan. 4 on charges of third-degree assault and battery. Officers said they were called to investigate a fight at Palmetto Behavioral Health, a mental health and substance abuse center, and arrested Sutherland as a result.
The next morning, deputies arrived at Sutherland's cell to take him to a bond court appearance. According to surveillance, cellphone and body camera video, Sutherland refuses to come to the door of his cell to be handcuffed, after repeatedly asked to do so.
"Inmate is refusing to open the door, refusing to cuff up, taken an aggressive stance," a jail deputy says in one video, noting that medical teams are standing by. "He's already said we have to use force on him."
The video shows Sutherland standing in his cell, ignoring repeated commands to kneel. Deputies open the door, use pepper spray and order Sutherland to get onto his stomach. Seated, he slowly moves toward the door, asking, "What is the meaning of this?"
A deputy enters the cell, trying to handcuff Sutherland. In one clip, two deputies deploy stun guns, and Sutherland cries out. With electrodes still on Sutherland, an officer fires a stun gun again, and forces Sutherland onto his stomach.
Sutherland can be heard saying, "I'm not resisting, officer."
Sutherland is eventually placed in handcuffs, as one deputy has a knee on his back for more than two minutes. "I can't breathe," Sutherland says.
Several minutes later, deputies lift Sutherland, who appears limp, into a wheelchair. One is heard asking, "Is he all right?"
Officials are later shown performing CPR, and Sutherland appears to be unresponsive. One deputy says, "He got tased probably about six to eight times, at least."
Sutherland's death happened a day after Sheriff Kristin Graziano made history as she was sworn in as South Carolina's first woman to be elected sheriff. At the time, Graziano said she looked forward "to bringing more transparency and accountability to the community," saying she'd focus on working "to repair bonds with our Black and Latinx brothers and sisters."
In January, officials released a statement on Sutherland's death, noting that deputies had "reported an unresponsive inmate," notified state police — as is standard — put the deputies involved on administrative leave and begun an internal investigation.
Graziano said this week the two deputies remained with the department, "re-assigned per policy to administrative duties." Local prosecutors have said charges are possible but that they want more information. A local coroner has not released a specific cause of Sutherland's death.
In a statement Thursday, Graziano said she had held the video's release in deference to the wishes of Sutherland's family but that now it "is clearly time for the public to view what happened."
Since the death, the sheriff said her agency is "evaluating options for global improvement, including a focus on mental health awareness," noting she had seen "fellow officers take on mental health responsibilities that they are not equipped to handle."
In a news conference Friday, an attorney for the Sutherland family said that Sutherland's schizophrenia and bipolar disorder were so severe he should never have been held in a nonmedical portion of the jail, and that the videos portrayed a "use of force that was so unnecessary and excessive that there are no words."
He said that the family is pursuing civil litigation.
"The video speaks for itself," Mark Peper said, standing outside the jail. "He is clearly, clearly experiencing mental health issues that cannot be adequately addressed at a detention center."
In a statement to The Associated Press, U.S. Rep. Nancy Mace, who represents the Charleston area, called on the FBI and state police to investigate.
"No one deserves the death penalty for missing a bond hearing or for being a mental health patient," the Republican said.
Gov. Henry McMaster tweeted Friday that the video "reveals issues which need to be addressed in training, procedures, and policies around law enforcement's encounters with those experiencing mental illness."
Asked about the case, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Friday that President Joe Biden felt that "police reform is long overdue, that far too often communities of color are living in fear and are exhausted by the threats and the possibility of being in harm's way."
During Friday's news conference, Sutherland's mother said she felt renewed pain due to the video release but pleaded with Charleston residents to remain calm.
"I don't want any violence in my city," Amy Sutherland said. "Please, no more hurt."