FBI, Justice Department open civil rights probe into violent US school arrest

SPH Brightcove Video
School Board Chairman James Manning says a video showing the violent arrest of a black student is 'inconsistent with everything this district stands for' and has asked South Carolina law enforcement to conduct an independent investigation.
Richland County Sheriff's Deputy Ben Fields has come under fire for his brutal treatment of a black female student during an arrest. PHOTOS: SCREENGRAB FROM YOUTUBE

WASHINGTON (AFP) - The FBI and the US Justice Department said Tuesday (Oct 27) they had opened a civil rights investigation into the violent arrest of a black female high school student by a white police officer, footage of which has gone viral and sparked outrage.

The incident in South Carolina comes amid a heightened focus on police brutality in the United States after a string of incidents - some deadly - involving law enforcement officials and African Americans.

Politicians, school officials and rights groups expressed outrage Tuesday, saying such violence has no place in schools.

In two mobile phone videos of Monday's confrontation at a high school in the state capital Columbia, an officer has a short conversation with a girl, sitting at her desk, before grabbing her by the neck, flipping her and her desk over, and dragging her along the floor.

She does not appear to put up any resistance, though Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said Tuesday he had learned of a third video of the incident, from a different angle, that shows the student hitting the officer.

School officials called the incident shocking.

"It was outrageous and unforgivable, and it does not represent who this district is," Debbie Hamm, superintendent of Richland School District Two, told reporters Tuesday.

She said there is strict protocol to ensure that the police officers assigned to the school only intervene in criminal behavior and not disciplinary incidents.

"Regardless of the reason for the officer's actions, such egregious use of force - against young people who are sitting in their classrooms - is outrageous," Victoria Middleton, executive director of the rights group American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement.


The civil rights investigation is being conducted by the Columbia field office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the bureau's Civil Rights Division and the US Attorney's Office for the District of South Carolina, the FBI and DOJ confirmed Tuesday to AFP.

"The FBI will collect all available facts and evidence in order to determine whether a federal law was violated," they said in a statement.

Lott said the officer has been suspended without pay since Monday and that an internal investigation to determine whether there were any violations of use-of-force policy would be wrapped up within the next 24 hours.

At that time, Lott will decide whether the officer will be fired or not.

The sheriff also said the student was not injured as far he knew, though "she may have had a rug burn or something like that," and that whether or not she hit the officer was not relevant to his investigation into whether the officer should keep his job.

US media identified the officer in the video as Ben Fields, one of two officers assigned to the school.

NBC News reported Fields was previously named as a defendant in a 2013 federal lawsuit that claimed he "unfairly and recklessly targets African-American students with allegations of gang membership and criminal gang activity."


The hashtag #AssaultAtSpringValleyHigh trended on Twitter Monday as the videos went viral.

Hillary Clinton, the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination, tweeted her outrage on Tuesday.

"There is no excuse for violence inside a school. The #AssaultAtSpringValleyHigh is unacceptable - schools should be safe places," Clinton said.

It follows in a line of highly publicized incidents in which police have attacked African-American residents with excessive or even deadly force, incidents that are increasingly being caught on film.

But law enforcement organizations have recently started to suggest the increased publicity garnered by violent interactions recorded on mobile phones was hurting their ability to patrol neighborhoods or act against possible suspicions.

Speaking to a conference of police chiefs Tuesday, President Barack Obama expressed concern that complaints against police and racial bias have been ignored for far too long, but he acknowledged police concerns.

"With today's technology, if just one of your officers does something irresponsible, the whole world knows about it moments later," he said in Chicago.

"And countless incidents of effective police work rarely make it on the evening news, so it's important for us not to just pounce and jump on anything that happens and immediately just draw conclusions."

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