On the morning of Jan. 5, 2021, 31-year-old Jamal Sutherland died at the Charleston County jail in Charleston, S.C. He was there because he had been arrested the previous night on misdemeanor assault charges after allegedly being involved in a fight at the mental health facility where he was being treated.
Already, I have questions. Why the hell is a mental health patient being taken to jail in the first place? Was there no better way for a mental health facility to handle a mentally ill man’s behavior?
Sutherland suffered from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. But that didn’t matter because he didn’t follow the instructions of sheriff’s deputies—so now he’s dead.
On Thursday night, and at the request of Sutherland’s family, the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office released hours of surveillance and body-cam footage showing what happened on Jan. 5 when deputies were attempting to force him out of his cell and into handcuffs so that he could be taken to court.
From ABC 4 News:
Sutherland repeatedly shouted “hallelujah” from inside his cell. Deputies ask him several times to come to the door of his cell so he can be placed in handcuffs and walked from the jail to the magistrate’s court for a bond hearing. Officers pepper sprayed him after he remained in the corner of the cell.
Deputy Brian Houle opened Sutherland’s cell and fired his taser at Sutherland, striking him and sending Sutherland to the ground.
Deputy Houle and Sgt. Lindsay Fickett, who had come to assist with removing Sutherland, then ordered Sutherland to slide on his butt across the floor to the door, after Sutherland claimed he couldn’t walk.
Sutherland slid to the door, and asked “What is the meaning of this?” When ordered to roll over onto his stomach so he could be handcuffed, Sutherland refused, saying he would only roll over onto his side.
Houle and Fickett then entered the cell and began handcuffing Sutherland, repeatedly ordering him to surrender his hands and “stop resisting.” An officer tasered Sutherland as he was being handcuffed. Sutherland was tasered at least six times, based on the videos the sheriff’s office provided, including statements by Houle himself caught on video.
While he was convulsing, Sgt. Fickett had straddled Sutherland’s hips and lower back, while Houle planted his knee across Sutherland’s shoulder blades.
The last words Sutherland clearly can be heard saying on the videos are “I can’t breathe.” The two detention deputies placed a spit hood on Sutherland after he stopped struggling.
Soon after the deputies handcuffed him and dragged him out of the cell, Sutherland thrashed his legs before falling limp and going motionless.
The medical staff at the jail spent the better part of an hour trying to save Sutherland’s life through CPR and chest compressions, but they weren’t successful. According to ABC, “the Charleston County Coroner’s Office has not ruled on the manner of Sutherland’s death, unwilling to point to one action or event that definitively claimed his life.” So as a reporter, I can’t definitively say that police brutality and wanton disregard for the mentally ill is what killed Jamal Sutherland. I will, however, point out that Sheriff Kristin Graziano, who authorized the release of the footage, all but said it herself.
“What occurred on Jan. 5, 2021, was a horrible tragedy,” Graziano said in a statement, ABC reports. “This unfortunate tragedy has revealed an opportunity to review existing policies. Similarly, we are looking at ways to improve safety for our staff members and the residents of our detention center. Since this tragedy occurred, we have assessed our resources and are evaluating options for global improvement, including a focus on mental health awareness.”
We’ve seen time and time again that cops are generally ain’t shit when it comes to handling people, especially Black people, who suffer from mental illness. Graziano also acknowledged in her statement that officers who are not trained to deal with the mentally ill shouldn’t be placed in a position where they are tasked with it.
“This must be changed, and I am committed to implementing that change,” she said. “These are systemic issues that our nation is facing on a daily basis. As sheriff, I regret that this occurred. I will continue to work with our judicial system, health care professionals, and community to ensure we are continually improving our processes and promoting the safety of all our residents and staff. This will require a lot of work, and we will continue to engage our community in conversations around these topics.”
On Friday, Sutherland’s family spoke to reporters after the footage was released.
“Mental illness does not give anybody the right to put their hands on my child,” Sutherland’s mother, Amy Sutherland, said. “That’s my child. I love my child.”
Mark Peper, the family attorney, made a claim during the news conference that should enrage anyone who wasn’t already enraged: He said Sutherland wasn’t involved in the fight that landed him in jail to begin with.
“An altercation occurred between two patients not named Jamal Sutherland,” Pepper said. “But due to the inability of Palmetto to properly handle–just as they have done many, many times–resulted in them calling 911 for mental health patients that challenged one another while facing their own challenges.”
He also said that Sutherland was arrested because he attempted to stop the fight.
“Jamal did exactly what he had been taught to do–the right thing–he intervened. He tried to help. And given the confusion is alleged to have committed a misdemeanor offense of simple assault on a nurse staff member.”
Pepper also said that “People with mental health issues are entitled to the same exact civil rights as you, and me, and every other healthy, wealthy person in this world.”