Family, clergy speak about death of Jamal Sutherland after release of jailhouse videos | News

Clergy and Charleston city officials voiced outrage and urged calm following the late-night release of by the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office of dozens of videos showing in graphic detail the final moments of Jamal Sutherland’s life.

The 31-year-old man’s parents, speaking separately May 14, discussed the Jan. 5 death of their son, whose mental health issues dogged his adult life.

Sutherland’s death in the Charleston County jail, where he was held on suspicion of misdemeanor assault, remains under investigation. Though the videos released by Sheriff Kristin Graziano show numerous applications of Taser jolts and a knee on his back for several minutes, the Charleston County Coroner’s office has ruled the manor of his death « undetermined. » His cause of death was ruled « excited state » with adverse effects caused by prescription medications as he was being subdued.

At a news conference on May 14, Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg, Police Chief Luther Reynolds, city council members and faith leaders said the video of Sutherland’s treatment was disturbing and inappropriate.

“Jamal Sutherland deserved the mental health treatment he sought,” Tecklenburg said. “Mental illness is not a crime.”

The Rev. Matthew Rivers of St. John’s Chapel in the East Side said a “greater mental illness” informs the actions seen in the video: racial inequality. Progress on a communitywide debate about injustice and mistreatment is needed in order to successfully address the problem of police brutality, he said.

“We want to tell Black Lives Matter we are here with you, we want you to know your voice matters,” he said, issuing a challenge to area clergy to come together for open dialogue.

A person suffering from mental illness encounters the police only because of a multitude of preceding failures, Reynolds said. That person might become belligerent with no easy access to health care.

“That’s often when we get called,” Reynolds said. “(But) the police are a small piece, and the least qualified.”

He said watching the video was painful.

“We want justice, we want to say the name Jamal Sutherland, we want this to get the attention it deserves,” Reynolds said, calling for civility and cooperation.

“When I saw the video … of George Floyd, it was one of the worst things I’ve ever seen. This was right in that category.”

Floyd, also a Black man, died under the knee of a White police officer in Minneapolis in May 2020. His death sparked protests and rioting across the country, including Charleston. The police officer involved has been convicted of murder in his death.

James Johnson, president of the Racial Justice Network, said he had a hard time watching the videos of Sutherland’s death.

“If you tase a dog that much, the Humane Society would want to see you thrown in jail,” he said, adding he thought the deputies involved should be charged with crimes.

Johnson said law enforcement agencies across the state need to implement new policies, procedures and training protocols regarding the use of Tasers and the treatment of the mentally ill. It’s essential, he said, that officers have easy access to mental health professionals who can respond quickly in a crisis.

In the meantime, no officer should be permitted to use the weapon. The video shows why.

“They’re just using it at will, without thinking,” he said.

Americans keep seeing evidence of excessive force, and calls for reform are getting louder, Johnson said. “They just don’t want to see this anymore.”

Axon, the company that makes Tasers, specifically calls for law enforcement officers to « avoid use on those with known or perceived mental illness or drug addiction. »

« Physical resistance alone does not equal an immediate safety risk, » the company states. « Emotionally disturbed person or mentally ill, by itself, does not indicate an immediate threat. »

Sutherland’s death was similar to one at a state Department of Mental Health facility in 2019.

There, longtime patient William Avant suffocated at the bottom of a dogpile of caregivers who were attempting to restrain him, The State reported in 2019.

Employees pinned Avant face down and lay across his back for four minutes, preventing the patient’s diaphragm from expanding to take in air. Their actions broke from the mental health agency’s employee training, which stresses patients should only be physically restrained when absolutely necessary, and never face down. The department’s training manual, in all capital letters, demands employees never lie across the patient’s head, neck, back or chest as doing so might « interfere with their breathing. »

Avant’s family sued the agency and later agreed to a $1.95 million settlement.

Pastors speak

Members of the clergy and city officials on May 14, 2021, discuss the death of Jamal Sutherland in the Charleston County jail and the videos of his death released by Sheriff Kristin Graziano the night before. Sutherland died in jail custody on Jan. 5, 2021. Adam Parker/Staff

Sutherland was taken to the jail by North Charleston police, who were called to Palmetto Lowcountry Behavioral Health. He was admitted there days earlier for treatment of his bipolar disorder and schizophrenia by his parents, with whom he was living in Goose Creek. 

Family attorney Mark Peper said by Jan. 4 Sutherland had become paranoid and was hearing voices. Later that day, were called there due to reports of fighting. One staff member told an emergency dispatcher of patients who were fighting, according to audio recently released by the city.

Sutherland and another patient from the center were arrested, accused of third-degree assault and battery and taken to the jail.

The Rev. Charles Glover, president of the Charleston chapter of the Racial Justice Network, said on May 13 he had hoped authorities would have first shared the video with civic leaders who might have helped engage the public productively.

In the 1980s, Glover worked as a security officer for the Charleston County sheriff, often transporting people with mental health issues from court or home to state institutions. He said Sutherland should have been treated differently at the jail.

What he needed was appropriate restraint, the safety of a padded cell, medicine to help calm him down and a proper evaluation from a trained medical professional.

“Why wasn’t he re-evaluated at that time?” he asked. Instead, he was violently restrained and tased. “That just made the problem worse.”

Before tasers were commonly used, officers nevertheless managed to restrain people and, often, calm them down, Glover noted. “It should not have escalated that far,” he said of Sutherland’s treatment at the jail.

Release of the videos came after several days of ratcheting tensions over an investigation that’s spanned months and lingering questions over how and why Sutherland died. 

Several of the video clips show deputies leading the 31-year-old from the jail booking area on the night of Jan. 4, and into a cell in the sprawling Leeds Avenue facility’s Behavior Modification Unit.

Body camera video from Detention Deputy Brian Houle captured deputies’ actions as they entered his cell the following morning in an attempt to get him to bond court. 

Pressure mounts to release video of Jamal Sutherland's final moments in Charleston County jail

The video recordings show Sutherland standing in his cell as deputies order him to drop to his knees. 

He ignores repeated commands. Shortly after 9:30 a.m. deputies twice used pepper spray on Sutherland in his cell. They open the cell door again soon after and a stun gun can be seen in the body camera’s frame. 

Deputies order Sutherland to get onto his stomach. 

He appears to sit on the ground and he follows commands to slowly slide toward the door. Deputies tell him to « keep coming. » 

« What is the meaning of this? » Sutherland asked as he moved along the cell floor. 

At 9:35 a.m. Houle enters the cell swiftly and tries to put handcuffs on Sutherland while telling him not to resist. Sutherland denied he was resisting.

Sgt. Lindsay Fickett video

In grainy body camera video, Sgt. Lindsay Fickett points her stun gun into the cell occupied by Jamal Sutherland, a mental patient who died moments later at the Charleston County jail. Charleston County Sheriff’s Office/Provided

Sgt. Lindsay Fickett then shocks Sutherland with a stun gun, which clicks in the background, and he cries out in pain. 

Shortly after, Houle also fires his stun gun. Sutherland continues to scream and writhe on the floor. 

Sutherland had been jailed after he was accused of getting into a fight at Palmetto Lowcountry Behavioral Health, the mental health facility where his parents had checked him in days prior to receive treatment for his conditions. 

A 20 minute video from Fickett’s body camera shows Fickett and Houle order Sutherland to get down as they open his door. Soon as the door is opened, Fickett fires her stun gun into the cell.

He falls to the ground and is heard screaming in pain. He is told to crawl toward the door.

With the stun gun’s electrodes still attached to him, he is ordered to turn onto his stomach. Houle forces him around as Fickett discharges more current into his body. He again screams in pain.

North Charleston officials release Jamal Sutherland arrest video, audio

Additional electric discharges are made and he continues to scream in agony.

At one point Sutherland can be heard saying « I’m not resisting, officer. » 

Deputies continually tell him to stop resisting. It’s not apparent in the videos whether he was resisting deputies. 

Nine minutes into the 30-minute video handcuffs are placed on his arms behind his back as he lay on his stomach.

As he’s being handcuffed, Houle has his knee on Sutherland’s back and remains there for over 2 minutes.

« I can’t breathe, » Sutherland said. 

Houle enters Sutherland’s cell around 9:35 a.m. By the time deputies lift him into a wheelchair around 9:41 a.m., he is visibly limp and unresponsive.

The deputy and Fickett lift up a spit hood, device put over a person’s head to prevent them from spitting or biting. Sutherland’s head slumps over onto his shoulder.  

A deputy asks, « Is he alright? »

Deputies feel for a pulse and others strap him to the wheel chair. 

A 20-minute video from Fickett’s body camera shows CPR being performed on Sutherland, both by hand and with the assistance of a mechanical CPR device known as a « thumper » which provides chest compressions.

More than a dozen people were observing as the compression machine pumps his chest. 

This scene is also captured by jail surveillance cameras from above.

A woman in blue scrubs appears to check on Sutherland at 9:42 a.m. in Houle’s video. He’s taken off the wheelchair and laid onto the floor. 

Several nurses appear to examine him for a few minutes.

« Hey, do you think you can sit up, » one of them asks Sutherland, who appears unresponsive. 

« He got tased probably about six to eight times at least, » Houle said. 

At 9:47 a.m. a nurse applies a neck brace to Sutherland. Someone asks if there’s oxygen. 

A nurse starts chest compressions about two minutes later, 9:49 a.m., according to the footage on Houle’s body camera. 

In a statement issued late May 13, Graziano said she’d been deferring to the Sutherland family’s wishes to keep the videos private until they were ready.

« They have now asked me to release the jail footage of their son, Jamal Sutherland, » Graziano said. « I am directing the immediate release of all videos related to his death in their entirety. We agree it is clearly time for the public to view what happened. I will continue to make myself available to the Sutherland family and offer my sincere condolences. I must respect the integrity of the ongoing investigations to ensure justice is served, and therefore I will not be commenting on specific aspects of the video. »

The sheriff called the events of Jan. 5 « a horrible tragedy. »

« Our officers removed Mr. Sutherland from his cell that morning in order to ensure that he received a timely bond hearing, as required by law, » Graziano said. « Their efforts were complicated by the increasing effects that Mr. Sutherland was suffering as a result of mental illness. This unfortunate tragedy has revealed an opportunity to review existing policies. »

The sheriff said she and agency leadership will be looking at ways to improve safety for staff and jail residents. 

Deputies used their Tasers to subdue Sutherland even before he showed signs of aggressive resistance, the video shows, which is a direct contradiction to several protocol guidelines on the use of Tasers published by the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

Tasers should not be used by more than one deputy, and then only deployed on people actively resisting or showing aggression who also are at risk of harming themselves or others, according to IACP guidelines.

The weapon is meant to be used defensively, not as an optional means of control, according to the IACP.

Anyone shocked by a Taser while in custody should receive regular monitoring by a medic.

Deputies must not “use any restraint technique that impairs respiration on anyone shocked with a weapon,” and officers must be made aware of an increased risk of sudden death of people using drugs or showing signs of delirium, the guidelines state.

Agencies should seek help from medical professionals to determine appropriate protocols, IACP states.

Yet Sutherland was shocked by two deputies as many as nine times and forcefully restrained in a way that impaired his ability to breathe. Tasers were used preemptively, not in defense, against a subject who did not show explicit signs of aggression, according to the videos.

Avery Wilks contributed to this report.

Editorial: Sutherland death demands reassessment of police policies toward mentally ill

Charleston County Sheriff’s Office released video related to the ongoing investigation into the Jan. 5 death of Jamal Sutherland.

This is a developing story. Check back for more. 

If you are on the Post and Courier mobile app and trying to the view the video, click here.

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