Federal Officials Close Investigation into Use of Force by School Resource
Officer at Spring Valley, South Carolina, High School
The Justice Department recently announced that there is insufficient evidence
to pursue federal criminal civil rights charges against former School
Resource Officer (SRO) Benjamin Fields for the physical force used in
handling a student at Spring Valley High School on Oct. 26, 2015.
Officials from the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the District of South
Carolina, the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and the
FBI met today with the student’s family and their representative
to inform them of this decision.
Federal authorities conducted a comprehensive investigation into the use
of force by Fields on Oct. 26, 2015, when arresting the student for violating
South Carolina’s law against disturbing schools. Working with the
South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, federal authorities conducted
witness interviews, evaluated video footage of the incident, reviewed
training records, examined the policies of the Richland County Sheriff’s
Department (RCSD) and consulted with use of force experts.
A team of experienced federal prosecutors and FBI agents considered whether
Fields violated federal law by willfully using unreasonable force against
the student at Spring Valley High School. Under the applicable 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
to do something the law forbids. This is the highest standard of intent
imposed by law. Mistake, misperception, negligence or poor judgment are
not sufficient to establish a federal criminal civil rights violation.
After a careful and thorough investigation, the team of experienced federal
prosecutors and FBI agents determined that the evidence was insufficient
to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Fields willfully deprived the
Spring Valley High School student of a constitutional right. This decision
is limited strictly to an application of the high legal standard required
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 U.S. Attorney’s Office of the District of South Carolina, the
Civil Rights Division and the FBI are committed to investigating allegations
of civil rights violations by law enforcement officers and will continue
to devote the resources required to ensure that all allegations of serious
civil rights violations are fully and completely investigated. The department
will aggressively prosecute criminal civil rights violations whenever
there is sufficient evidence to do so.
The Justice Department has addressed issues that the Oct. 26, 2015, incident
brought to light in other ways. The department’s Office of Justice Programs
reached a comprehensive agreement with RCSD to promptly enact critical changes to its SRO program in order
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 RCSD 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.
More recently, the department filed a
statement of interest in the case of Kenny et al. v. Wilson et al. articulating the position
that laws invoked to charge juveniles – like the law against disturbing
schools invoked in this case – must include clear standards to ensure
that they are enforced consistently and free from discrimination. In the
filing, the department explained that vague statutes enforced arbitrarily
contribute to the “school-to-prison pipeline,” the cycle of
harsh school discipline that brings young people into the justice system
and disproportionately affects, among others, students of color and students
with disabilities. The department also remains committed to improving
all students’ sense of safety in educational settings. As part of
that effort, the department is monitoring robust settlement agreements
with school districts across the country to combat discriminatory school
discipline practices that prevent children from reaching their full potential.
Additionally, in September 2016, together with the Department of Education,
the Justice Department
announced a series of resources to aid state and local education and law enforcement agencies in responsibly
incorporating SROs in the learning environment.