Mentally ill Black man dies in jail after guards used stun guns and knelt on his back

Harriet Brewis
Saturday 15 May 2021 10:25
news

Newly released body cam footage has revealed how a Black man suffering from severe mental illness died in jail after being restrained by guards.

The shocking recordings show deputies repeatedly deploying stun guns and kneeling on the neck of Jamal Sutherland, 31, in his cell.

At one point the distressed inmate can be heard saying: “I can’t breathe,” before he eventually stops moving.

An hour later, Sutherland was pronounced dead, officials confirmed.

On Thursday, authorities in Charleston County, South Carolina, released hours of cellphone and surveillance footage surrounding Sutherland’s death, at the request of his family.

The town’s sheriff, Kristin Graziano, described the incident as a “horrible tragedy” – the case is now being reviewed.

The 31-year-old was arrested on January 4 after a “large scale fight" broke out at a psychiatric facility where he was being treated, according to a statement from North Charleston mayor Keith Summey.

He was then transferred from the facility to the Al Cannon Detention Center.

The following morning, sheriff’s deputies attempted to move him from his cell for a bond court appearance.

According to the dozens of released video clips, Sutherland refused to come to the door of his cell to be handcuffed, after being repeatedly asked to do so.

“Inmate is refusing to open the door, refusing to cuff up, taking an aggressive stance,” a jail officer says in one video.

“He’s already said we have to use force on him.”

Sutherland asked: ‘What is the meaning of this?’ as officers confronted him with tasers

(Charleston County Sheriff's Office)

The recording shows Sutherland standing in his cell, ignoring repeated commands to kneel.

Deputies then open the door, use pepper spray and order Sutherland to get onto his stomach. Seated, the 31-year-old moves toward the door, asking: “What is the meaning of this?”

In another clip, two deputies deploy stun guns and Sutherland cries out before crumpling onto his stomach.

Sutherland can be heard saying: “I’m not resisting, officer.”

He is eventually placed in handcuffs, as one deputy has a knee on his back for more than two minutes.

“I can’t breathe,” Sutherland says.

Several minutes later, deputies lift Sutherland, who appears limp, into a wheelchair. One is heard asking: “Is he all right?”

Officials are later filmed performing CPR, and Sutherland appears to be unresponsive. One deputy says: “He got tased probably about six to eight times, at least.”

Sutherland was pronounced dead an hour and 15 minutes after the officers first tried to remove him from his cell

(Charleston County Sheriff's Office)

Sutherland’s death happened just a day after Graziano made history as the first woman to be elected sheriff in South Carolina.

At the time, she said she looked forward “to bringing more transparency and accountability to the community,” saying she would focus on working “to repair bonds with our Black and Latinx brothers and sisters.”

In January, officials released a statement on Sutherland’s death, noting that deputies had “reported an unresponsive inmate.”

They said state police had been notified and the deputies involved had been placed on administrative leave, while an internal investigation got underway.

Graziano said this week that two officers remained with the department but had been “re-assigned per policy to administrative duties.”

Local prosecutors have said charges are possible but that they want more information. A local coroner has not released a specific cause of Sutherland’s death.

In a statement on Thursday, Graziano said she had held the video’s release in deference to the wishes of Sutherland’s family but that now it “is clearly time for the public to view what happened.”

Since the death, the sheriff said her agency is “evaluating options for global improvement, including a focus on mental health awareness,” noting she had seen “fellow officers take on mental health responsibilities that they are not equipped to handle.”

In a news conference on Friday, an attorney for the Sutherland family said that the 31-year-old’s schizophrenia and bipolar disorder were so severe he should never have been held in a nonmedical portion of the jail.

Lawyer Mark Peper added that the videos portrayed a “use of force that was so unnecessary and excessive that there are no words.” He said that the family is pursuing civil litigation.

“The video speaks for itself,” Peper said, standing outside the jail.

“He is clearly, clearly experiencing mental health issues that cannot be adequately addressed at a detention center.”

In a statement to The Associated Press, US Rep. Nancy Mace, who represents the Charleston area, called on the FBI and state police to investigate.

“No one deserves the death penalty for missing a bond hearing or for being a mental health patient,” the Republican said.

Governor Henry McMaster tweeted on Friday that the videos reveal “issues which need to be addressed in training, procedures, and policies around law enforcement’s encounters with those experiencing mental illness.”

Asked about the case, White House press secretary Jen Psaki that President Joe Biden felt that “police reform is long overdue, that far too often communities of colour are living in fear and are exhausted by the threats and the possibility of being in harm’s way.”

During Friday’s news conference, Sutherland’s mother said she felt renewed pain due to the video release but pleaded with Charleston residents to remain calm.

“I don’t want any violence in my city,” Amy Sutherland said. “Please, no more hurt.”

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