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Video of Black Man’s Death in Jail Sparks Outrage in South Carolina

Community activists gathered in Charleston to talk police reforms days after the release of video showing a mentally ill man being subdued by officers at a local jail just before he was pronounced dead.

(CN) — Public outcry following the release of video footage of the death of a mentally ill man at the hands of jailors in South Carolina prompted state Democratic lawmakers to host a meeting with community activist groups Wednesday in Charleston.

Questions remain as to why it took five months for the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division to release the body-cam video and whether either of the two officers that were fired Monday will face charges in the death of Jamal Sutherland, a 31-year-old Black man.

The graphic video shows six jailors barking commands at Sutherland while tasing him multiple times and kneeling on his back on Jan. 5 at the Al Cannon Detention Center in North Charleston. Sutherland was arrested after being involved in a fight at a mental health facility where he had been committed as a patient. 

Charleston’s Black Lives Matter organizer Mike McDonald said that without pressure from activists, authorities would have attempted to sweep the body-cam video under the rug and the two officers probably would not have been fired.

“I knew it was going to be bad because even before they released the video, they were talking about making a settlement with his family,” McDonald said at Wednesday’s community activist meeting, hosted by the NAACP at North Charleston City Hall.

At the time of the fatal incident, Sutherland was being taken out of a cell to attend a bond hearing. His mother says he was clearly incapable of understanding the process.  

“Mental illness does not give anyone the right to put their hands on my child,” Amy Sutherland said at the meeting. “They treated him like an animal. Why did they not just talk to him? They clearly knew he hand mental illness issues.”

After Charleston County Sheriff Kristin Graziano released the video footage last Thursday, demonstrators marched from Marion Square in Charleston to Solicitor Scarlett Wilson’s office, demanding she prosecute the two deputies who were fired in connection to Sutherland’s death.

In a statement Tuesday, Wilson said the video is disturbing and called the failures in mental health care “maddening.” She also said the investigative report into Sutherland’s death has exposed a need for a follow-up on several issues.

“It is my responsibility to analyze the evidence collected and to decide whether the state can prove a criminal offense beyond a reasonable doubt. No well-meaning person wants any prosecution to proceed without a thorough and complete investigation and analysis,” she said.

Sutherland’s father James Sutherland said policy changes are needed, and members of the state’s Black Democratic Caucus and Black Legislative Caucus echoed the same sentiment during Wednesday’s meeting.

“The use of police should be a last resort when dealing with individuals who are suffering from mental illness,” said State Representative Wendell Gilliard, D-Charleston. “We need to rebuild the system. We need to create a phone number that people can call when someone is having a mental health crisis instead of just the police.”

McDonald said the local BLM chapter is continuing its fight to have legislators fund mental health programs.

“We need a safer place for people who are experiencing mental illness to go instead of arresting them and throwing them in jail,” he said.

State Senator Margie Bright Matthews, D-Walterboro, said that during the last legislative session, Republicans who are in control of the South Carolina House of Representatives did not bother to address bills that she presented that focused on police brutality and funding for programs that would expand services for the mentally ill.

“All they wanted to talk about is the militia, open carry laws and abortion. I’ve got at least 10 bills that they put in the 13th file,” Matthews said, using a euphemism for a trash can. “We need to address issues like training officers how to treat people and we need to create a new protocol for police to follow.”

Representative Marvin Pendarvis, D-North Charleston, suggested House Democrats should push for more funding for systematic law enforcement reform.

Another issue brought to the table at the meeting is the need to have a separate team specially trained to address issues when an inmate is having a mental health crisis.

“While all law enforcement should be trained, I think it would be best if we had a mental health team as a separate area that could be on call for such situations,” Matthews said.

Gilliard noted Sutherland is not the first to die at the hands of South Carolina law enforcement and that African Americans disproportionately experience police brutality.

“I cried when I saw that video. The truth is 65% of people locked up in Charleston are African American. We have got to increase the racial diversity of our law enforcement community in order to address the issues with racism,” he said. “We have got to get some of the Republicans to work together with us in order to get some of these bills passed in the next session. We need bipartisanship.”

Gilliard said meetings like the one held Wednesday is where change begins.

“We got the body-cam law started in this very room back in 2015,” he said. “We just have to keep the pressure up.”

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