Late yesterday afternoon, Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott held a press conference to discuss school resource officer Ben Fields’ violent arrest of a teenage girl at Spring Valley High School in Columbia, South Carolina. You can watch the full video above, but here are a few key quotes from the 12-minute speech and question-and-answer session.
On his investigation:
Our investigation is an internal investigation dealing only with policy violations. It has nothing to do with any criminal wrongdoings at all. We’re looking at: did the officer act properly, did he act in relationship to the training that we provide? Did he follow all of our policies and procedures? That’s what internal affairs’ investigation is doing. And the results of that will determine his employment here. He has been suspended without pay. … The timetable on the internal investigation—[it] should be finishing within probably the next 24 hours. Within the next 24 hours, I will have the results of our internal investigation, and at that point, I’ll make my decision on whether the deputy will continue to be employed here or not.
When asked if Fields should have even been in the room:
As far as the officer being there, I have some concerns about that, too. I think sometimes our officers are put in very difficult positions. When a teacher can’t control a student, is that our responsibility to go in there and remove that student, or is that the responsibility of the teacher or the school administration to do that?
On South Carolina’s “disturbing schools” law:
Unfortunately, our legislature passed a law that’s called "disturbing schools." If a student disturbs schools—and that’s a wide range of activities, disturbing schools—they can be arrested. Our goal has always been, let’s see what we can do without arresting the kids. We don’t need to arrest these students, we need to keep them in schools. And that’s why we have so many alternative programs to do that. Should that officer have been called to come get involved? That’s something the school district is gonna have to answer. And we’ve had discussions about that in the past. Is it proper to call an SRO to come in and discipline a child? Is that our job, or is that the school’s job? … I didn’t pass that law… it’s something that’s been put on us. And I’ll be one of the first ones to stand here and tell you that it’s been abused in the past. It’s been abused. Because it’s so wide-ranging. A phone goes off—if that teacher determines that that phone is disrupting the class and other students can’t learn, she can have that student arrested for it. Should that happen? In my opinion, no. That law allows for too much leeway on the eyes of the beholder, I think, when it comes to the teacher or maybe to the administrator. And again, our goal as the school resource officers is to make sure that we don’t criminalize these kids, that we keep them out of the criminal justice system.
On his view of the students’ responsibility in the incident:
We’ve seen one video, we’ve seen two videos, and now we’ve learned that there is a third video. We have a third one that has come forward now. …It actually shows the student hitting the school resource officer with her fists and striking. Now what she does is not what I’m looking at. What I’m looking at is what our school resource officer did. What was [sic] his actions? What did he do? … Even though she was wrong for disturbing class. Even though she refused to abide by the directions of the teacher, school administrator, and then also the verbal commands of our deputy, I’m looking at what our deputy did. …We hope [the school district takes] care of what that student did. The student was wrong in what she did. There’s no doubt about that. She disrupted class. …But does [sic] her actions meet the level of what this officer did? That’s what we’ve going to decide. She bears some responsibility. If she had not disrupted the school and disrupted the class, we would not be standing here today. So it started with her and it ended with my officer. What I’m gonna deal with is what my deputy did.
On whether or not officers can use force on students:
Once she was [sic] placed under arrest and she has either passive or active resistance, the officer has certain levels of force he can use. That’s the force continuum. That starts from just verbal commands all the way up to lethal force. And you have a lot of things in between. And that’s what these officers are trained to do. So, yes, legally, could he put his hands on her and remove her from that classroom? Yes, he could do that. Once he placed her under arrest, then his responsibility at that point is to complete the arrest and remove her from the classroom. Now, again, what’s in question is how he accomplished that.
On what role race played in the arrest:
I don’t know. It’s difficult to say that, and I guess in one way I make that decision is based on personal knowledge about this deputy. He’s been dating an African-American female for quite some time now. So does that have a bearing on his thought process? It may have. But I would think that would have it on [sic] a positive way, and not on [sic] a negative way. So I don’t know. There’s been no any indication of that, he’s never expressed that in the past, we’ve never seen that. It really doesn’t matter to me if that child had been purple. It’s what his actions are and that’s what we’re concerned about.
On what will happen to the two students who were arrested:
In most cases like this, we have alternative programs. And if the solicitor and everybody involved feels that’s the best option for this case, then they’ll go through alternative programs. Again, our youth arbitration program is designed to keep these young people from having a criminal record. We don’t want them to have a criminal record. We want them to be able to get scholarships and be successful and go to school. And these two students yesterday will be no different. They probably made mistakes yesterday. They should be held accountable for those mistakes, but they shouldn’t be crucified for those mistakes where it’s gonna impact them for the rest of their lives
On the possibility of changing his officers’ procedures:
We’ll go back and look at what he did and we’ll reexamine it and see if there’s [sic] some changes that we need to make. I don’t know, maybe one of the first ones that just jumped out at me is whether all of the other students should be removed from the classroom so they wasn’t [sic] present when this happened. And that’s not to prevent them from video recording it, but maybe they just shouldn’t need to be in there. We didn’t know at what point it could have escalated, so why have the other students in there?
The Internet immediately began to dissect the press conference:
What the fuck does that have to do with this teenage high school student?! https://t.co/offcTpDWn5
— Johnetta Elzie (@Nettaaaaaaaa) October 27, 2015
— Jamil Smith (@JamilSmith) October 27, 2015
Sounds like Sheriff Leon Lott is trying to convict the young girl.
— story (@storyfor60min) October 27, 2015
Sheriff Leon Lott is giving us same ole BS: Won’t comment on Fields actions but will say student punched Fields #AssaultatSpringValley
— Jerome Coleman (@wjeromecoleman) October 27, 2015
Also key: While many are excited that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has opened a civil rights investigation into Fields’ actions, VICE reports that FBI Director James Comey thinks that videos that show cops behaving violently toward citizens has a negative impact on policing:
Speaking to students at the University of Chicago, Comey said on Friday that the "era of viral videos" has put cops "under siege," pushing cops to stay in their cars and avoid walking their beats in rough neighborhoods. He doubled down on Monday in a speech to the International Association of Chiefs of Police, telling the group that those filming the police were driving a wedge between African-American communities and law enforcement.
"I actually feel the lines continuing to arch away, and maybe accelerating, incident by incident, video by video, hashtag by hashtag, and that’s a terrible place to be," he said.