Columbia, SC (WLTX) - Former Richland County Sheriff's deputy Ben Fields is suing his old employers, claiming they put out false information that ruined his reputation after a classroom incident involving him that made national headlines.
Fields filed the lawsuit in court this week in Richland County, and names as defendants the Richland County Sheriff's Department, Sheriff Leon Lott, and Richland School District Two.
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It all involves an incident that took place on October 26, 2015 at Spring Valley High School, where Fields had been working as school resource officer for seven years. On that day he was called to a classroom because of a disruptive student who refused to leave the room when ordered to by a teacher. After giving her verbal warnings, Fields physically removed her from the class.
Three separate cell phone videos taken by classmates showed part of the encounter between Fields and the student that ended with Fields dragging the student, then putting her in handcuffs.
Fields has said the teen struck him several times while he grabbed her out of her seat.
The cell phone videos were shared across the country, played on local and national newscasts, and created a debate about the use of force in schools.
Lott fired Fields two days later, saying the officer didn't use proper procedure to remove and restrain the student.
In his lawsuit, however, Fields disputes that assertion. The paperwork filed quotes an internal sheriff's department memorandum sent from a captain to a major within the agency that had reviewed the incident. The suit claims the memo was sent on October 27.
In it, the captain states that it appeared that the student struck Fields in the neck.
"This is, at the very least, Defensive Resistance, and possibly Active Aggression," the memo states. " According to policy, Fields had the option of using OC [pepper spray], Taser, soft empty hand control, hard empty hand control, or Canine. Fields responded with hard empty hand control. Once down on the grounds, Fields appeared to pull her away from the desk and thrown her towards the front of the classroom."
Soft hand control is using grabs, holds, a joint locks, while hard hand is using punches and kicks to restrain a person.
Fields believes that shows that he used the proper technique.
On the day of the incident, Fields said he was told there would be a review of his actions but that he should report to work the next day. However, that night, he learned by watching the news that he'd been suspended without pay.
On October 28, Lott called him into his office, and told him that he was firing him, adding that he had "no choice." Fields was also fired by the school district.
"Our training unit verified that the maneuver was not based on training or acceptable," Lott said in a statement released after the firing. Lott also held a news conference about his decision.
Fields, however, says Lott and the department knew that his actions were within the boundaries of the agency's use of force policy, and that they should have let the public know that. And he says the school district knew that both the teacher and an administrator at Spring Valley had made statements agreeing with what he did to get the student under control.
Fields says since the incident, his reputation has been ruined, and he must go back to the police academy if he ever wants to continue his law enforcement career. It also says he's been embarrassed, humiliated, and has sustained mental anguish.
Also in the suit is his claim that he was treated unfairly because of his race. (Fields is white; the girl in the classroom incident is black). According to him, the department is "intentionally disadvantaging white employees in matters involving black individuals and disparate treatment to white employees with regard to the terms and conditions of their employment, and unequal treatment with regards to decisions to hire and fire."
He seeks actual damages and an award for attorneys fees.
In September of 2016, Fifth Circuit Solicitor Dan Johnson decided criminal charges were not necessary in the case. And on Friday, the U.S. Justice Department said it wasn't pursuing a case against Fields either.
The Richland County Sheriff's Department says they cannot comment on the lawsuit because it it pending litigation.
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