Federal Government’s Response to South Carolina Spring Valley High School Incident Is Unprecedented

Spring Valley
A still from a video of a police officer and a student at Spring Valley High School in Richland County, South Carolina. @Motive_Money/Twitter

Just one day after a video surfaced of a white South Carolina high school resource officer flipping a black student in her chair and dragging her across a classroom, the FBI and U.S. Department of Justice said they would investigate the incident, which had quickly garnered national attention. Yet in previous cases involving police using what was seen as excessive force on a racial minority, federal agencies have sometimes taken months to decide to investigate—or chosen not to investigate at all.

Several criminal justice experts say the speed with which the FBI and the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department announced they would investigate the South Carolina incident is unprecedented. And some say this may indicate that the federal government is finally reacting appropriately to what activists believe are widespread issues of police misconduct.

“I think it’s extremely quick, based on past cases,” says William Terrill, a criminal justice professor at Michigan State University. “Obviously, with the tone and the tenor of police-community relations going on in the past year-plus, certainly the civil rights division has been getting involved in more and more cases. It’s just usually not this quick.”

The controversial video surfaced on Twitter on Monday and quickly ricocheted across the Web. It appears to show Ben Fields, a sheriff’s deputy with the Richland County Sheriff’s Department and a school resource officer at Spring Valley High School in Columbia, South Carolina, during a violent interaction with a student. During a press conference on Monday, a police spokesman said the interaction happened after the teacher and a school administrator had asked the girl to leave her seat and she refused. The student was eventually arrested, as was another student. A second video of the interaction has also surfaced.

Fields was fired from the police force on Wednesday.

Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott quickly requested that the FBI and Justice Department investigate the incident, and the two agencies announced Tuesday they would do so. A Justice Department spokesman said in a statement: “The Columbia FBI Field Office, the Civil Rights Division and the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of South Carolina have opened a civil rights investigation into the circumstances surrounding the arrest of a student at Spring Valley High School. The FBI will collect all available facts and evidence in order to determine whether a federal law was violated.”

For some officer-involved incidents, the federal government has swiftly opened investigations. In the case of Michael Brown, the teen gunned down by a cop in August 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri, it was only two days after his death. And for Freddie Gray, who died in police custody in Baltimore, a federal investigation was also opened two days after his death in April 2015.

Others have taken longer. The Justice Department did not open its investigation into the officer-involved chokehold death of Eric Garner in July 2014 for nearly five months. And activists are still calling for an official federal investigation into the officer-involved death of Tamir Rice in Cleveland in November 2014.

Because reports have said the student in the South Carolina case was uninjured, the incident tracks closely to one in Texas during a pool party in June, when a white officer was filmed drawing his weapon and aggressively arresting a black teenage girl. The federal government has not investigated that incident, even though a video posted online of the altercation caused national outrage.

“They’re acting in cases where, in the past, I would not have expected it,” says Samuel Walker, a civil liberties and policing expert and the author of more than a dozen books, including The New World of Police Accountability. Like Terrill, of Michigan State, Walker says he can’t think of any instances in which the federal government decided to investigate this type of incident so speedily.

Criminal justice and civil rights experts say the classroom setting of the South Carolina incident may have prompted the rapid federal response.

“This administration and the Justice Department have been particularly interested in issues of school discipline and in the possibility of discrimination and discipline,” says Dennis Parker, director of the racial justice program for the American Civil Liberties Union. “I think that certainly, given their interest in the impact of improper discipline in schools that it would make sense for them to take more seriously an incident or at least to move more quickly on an incident in schools,” he says. “It also makes sense [because] obviously this involves children; it involves an educational institution.”

Parker is referring to a study released by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights in 2014 on the disproportionately higher rate of suspensions for students of color. The Department of Education and the Justice Department also last year released what the agencies called a “school discipline guidance package” to advise schools on using “responses to misbehavior that are fair, non-discriminatory and effective.”

Parker adds that the federal government should take cases involving nonschool settings just as seriously. “I certainly hope that they treat all instances of possible constitutional violations seriously,” he says.

Another reason for the speedy announcement in the South Carolina incident, says Steve Silverman, executive director of Flex Your Rights, a nonprofit that educates people about interacting with the police, is because the incident was caught on camera.

“The police chiefs and the prosecutors, they can’t just sit on their hands while the officer works on his story,” he says. “It's this kind of video evidence that allows police chiefs to quickly act.... The speed must have happened on account of the video.”

Walker, the civil rights and policing expert, also points out that the announcement to investigate comes just days after FBI Director James Comey came under fire for comments he made linking an increase in crime to police who are afraid to do their jobs because of public scrutiny, especially since Ferguson.

While civil rights activists applaud the involvement of the FBI and Justice Department, Terrill says it is important that federal agencies step in only when there is clear indication that a police officer has broken a federal law. Finding that the officer used excessive force because of the student’s race could bring about a federal charge, for example, but excessive force without racial motivation would need to be handled at a more local level, Terrill says.

“If they think that there was a federal crime...certainly they can investigate this, and it’s within their jurisdiction,” Terrill says. “I’m hoping that they have some degree of evidence or some reasonable suspicion or probable cause in some manner, even if it's circumstantial in nature, that there has been a federal crime, because short of that they are overstepping their bounds.... Short of that, it could be a clear overstepping of their bounds and could set a dangerous precedent.”

Correction: This article previously incorrectly stated that the federal government opened an investigation into Freddie Gray's death nine days after his death. It opened the investigation after two days. This article also previously incorrectly stated that the federal government had not said it would investigate the death of Corey Jones. A sheriff has said the FBI has agreed to investigate.