(NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C.) — The Department of Justice and the FBI are investigating the death of a Black man with a mental illness at a South Carolina jail, as newly released body camera footage showed deputies repeatedly deploying stun guns before he became unresponsive.
Jamal Sutherland died on Jan. 5 at the Sheriff Al Cannon Detention Center in North Charleston after deputies attempted to remove him from his cell to attend a bond hearing for a misdemeanor assault charge that morning, according to a state prosecutor investigating the incident.
The Charleston County Sheriff’s Office released hours of body camera footage Thursday night at the request of Sutherland’s family, who are calling for the officers involved to be fired.
Sutherland suffered from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, his family said at a press briefing Friday. He had been at a behavioral health care clinic before going to jail following a fight at the clinic, according to Mark Peper, a lawyer representing the family.
“Mental illness does not give anybody the right to put their hands on my child,” Amy Sutherland, Jamal’s mother, said as she fought back tears. “That’s my child. I love my child. His father and his brothers, they love Jamal.”
“Jamal may have been mentally ill, but he was brilliant,” she added.
The disturbing body camera footage shows deputies attempt to extract Sutherland from his cell. For several minutes they ask him to come to the door, before one deputy deploys a stun gun and he falls to the ground. The deputies order him to come to the door. When Sutherland says he can’t stand, they order him to slide.
“What is the meaning of this?” he can be heard asking.
Once Sutherland reaches the door, a deputy attempts to place him in handcuffs, saying “Do not resist!” While Sutherland is on the ground, a deputy stuns him repeatedly, while another deputy kneels on his back. Sutherland can be heard screaming.
“I can’t breathe,” Sutherland later says.
As Sutherland is then dragged along the floor on his stomach, a deputy yells, “Stop resisting!” They move him to a chair, at which point a medical worker checks his pulse as Sutherland appears unresponsive. The deputies move him back to the floor, and more medical staff arrive and perform chest compressions.
Based on an autopsy, Sutherland’s cause of death was “excited state with adverse pharmacotherapeutic effect during subdual process,” according to Charleston County Coroner Bobbi Jo O’Neal. The manner of death is currently undetermined “as the investigation into the death of Mr. Sutherland remains open and is still active,” the coroner’s office said.
The two deputies involved are working in an administrative capacity pending the outcome of the sheriff’s office internal investigation. The deputies have not been formally named.
The deputies “need to be let go,” said James Sutherland, Jamal’s father, Friday. “They don’t need to be working in law enforcement.”
“He was already afraid and confused about the situation and there was nobody in there to talk to him with any compassion, to try to reason with him, and to let him know what was going on,” he said.
Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg called the footage “horrific” as the city announced the Department of Justice and the FBI are investigating the death Friday. “We still have more questions than answers.”
He stressed the need for officers to receive deescalation training, especially for incidents involving people who suffer from mental illness.
“Jamal Sutherland deserved the mental health treatment that he sought,” said Tecklenburg. “What rationale could there be for the treatment that Jamal received? My mind can’t find one.”
“In the days ahead, we will come together as a community and we will address these important mental health and criminal justice issues,” he added.
Charleston Chief of Police Luther T. Reynolds likened watching the footage to seeing video of George Floyd’s death last year while in custody of Minneapolis police.
“When I saw George Floyd last year, it was one of the worst things I’ve ever seen. This is right in that same category,” Reynolds said Friday. “It was painful. It was difficult. And it will never get any easier, watching that video and watching a person die.”
Charleston County Sheriff Kristin Graziano called the incident a “horrible tragedy” in a statement Thursday night upon the release of the body camera footage.
“As sheriff, I regret that this occurred,” she said, noting that the office is looking to change how officers are equipped to handle “mental health responsibilities.” “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.”
A mental health professional is assigned to the Al Cannon Detention Center, but Graziano said she was not sure whether that person was on duty the morning of Jan. 5.
A single mental health professional is “not enough and we need more,” the sheriff said at a press briefing Friday evening.
Graziano said she has eliminated forced bond hearings in the wake of Sutherland’s death. Residents now have the option of attending a hearing.
Scarlett Wilson, the state prosecutor for South Carolina’s 9th Judicial Circuit, has said she will decide on any criminal charges before the end of June.
The incident has drawn the attention of the White House, which has “closely watched” the case, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said during a briefing Friday.
Psaki reiterated President Joe Biden’s call for Congress to reach agreement on police reform legislation by May 25, the anniversary of Floyd’s murder.
“What I can say is that the president’s focus and belief is that police reform is long overdue,” she said. “That far too often, communities of color are living in fear and are exhausted by the threat and the possibility of being in harm’s way, and they should not feel that way.”
ABC News’ Ben Gittleson, Will Gretsky and Ahmad Hemingway contributed to this report.
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