Feds close civil rights investigation into SC resource officer use of force case

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WASHINGTON- The Justice Department announced Friday that there is not enough evidence to pursue federal criminal civil rights charges against former School Resource Officer Benjamin Fields for the physical force used in handling a student at Spring Valley High School in October of 2015.

Federal authorities opened the investigation on Oct. 26, 2015, when he arrested the student for violating South Carolina’s law against disturbing schools. Former SRO Ben Fields was called into a classroom when a student refused to put her phone away after being told to by the teacher and an assistant principal. Cell phone video shot by students in the class showed Fields pull the girl out of her desk and drag her across the room, then handcuff her.

Federal authorities and SLED investigators conducted witness interviews, evaluated video footage of the incident, reviewed training records, examined the policies of the Richland County Sheriff’s Department and consulted with use of force experts.

Under the federal criminal civil rights statute, prosecutors must establish, beyond a reasonable doubt, that a law enforcement officer willfully deprived an individual of a constitutional right.  To establish willfulness, federal authorities must show that the officer acted with the deliberate and specific intent.  Mistake, misperception, negligence or poor judgment are not sufficient to establish a federal criminal civil rights violation.

This decision is limited strictly to prosecute the case under the federal civil rights statute; it does not reflect an assessment of any other aspect of the incident involving Fields and the Spring Valley High School student.

The Justice Department says they have addressed issues that the 2015 incident brought to light in other ways including an agreement to enact changes to its SRO program to ensure full compliance with federal civil rights laws prohibiting discrimination against students based on race, color, national origin and disability.  As part of this settlement, the Richland County Sheriff’s Department is required to provide intensive, annual training for all SROs on de-escalation, bias-free policing and youth development and to develop policies to minimize school-based arrests.