The Justice Department announced today that there is insufficient evidence to pursue federal criminal civil rights charges against former School Resource Officer (SRO) Benjamin Fields for the physical force used in handling a student at Spring Valley High School on Oct. 26, 2015.
Officials from the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the District of South Carolina, the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and the FBI met today with the student’s family and their representative to inform them of this decision.
Federal authorities conducted a comprehensive investigation into the use of force by Fields on Oct. 26, 2015, when arresting the student for violating South Carolina’s law against disturbing schools. Working with the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, federal authorities conducted witness interviews, evaluated video footage of the incident, reviewed training records, examined the policies of the Richland County Sheriff’s Department (RCSD) and consulted with use of force experts.
A team of experienced federal prosecutors and FBI agents considered whether Fields violated federal law by willfully using unreasonable force against the student at Spring Valley High School. Under the applicable federal criminal civil rights statute, prosecutors must establish, beyond a reasonable doubt, that a law enforcement officer willfully deprived an individual of a constitutional right. To establish willfulness, federal authorities must show that the officer acted with the deliberate and specific intent to do something the law forbids. This is the highest standard of intent imposed by law. Mistake, misperception, negligence or poor judgment are not sufficient to establish a federal criminal civil rights violation.
After a careful and thorough investigation, the team of experienced federal prosecutors and FBI agents determined that the evidence was insufficient to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Fields willfully deprived the Spring Valley High School student of a constitutional right. This decision is limited strictly to an application of the high legal standard required to prosecute the case under the federal civil rights statute; it does not reflect an assessment of any other aspect of the incident involving Fields and the Spring Valley High School student.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office of the District of South Carolina, the Civil Rights Division and the FBI are committed to investigating allegations of civil rights violations by law enforcement officers and will continue to devote the resources required to ensure that all allegations of serious civil rights violations are fully and completely investigated. The department will aggressively prosecute criminal civil rights violations whenever there is sufficient evidence to do so.
The Justice Department has addressed issues that the Oct. 26, 2015, incident brought to light in other ways. The department’s Office of Justice Programs reached a comprehensive agreement with RCSD to promptly enact critical changes to its SRO program in order to ensure full compliance with federal civil rights laws prohibiting discrimination against students based on race, color, national origin and disability. As part of this settlement, the RCSD is required to provide intensive, annual training for all SROs on de-escalation, bias-free policing and youth development and to develop policies to minimize school-based arrests. More recently, the department filed a statement of interest in the case of Kenny et al. v. Wilson et al. articulating the position that laws invoked to charge juveniles – like the law against disturbing schools invoked in this case – must include clear standards to ensure that they are enforced consistently and free from discrimination. In the filing, the department explained that vague statutes enforced arbitrarily contribute to the “school-to-prison pipeline,” the cycle of harsh school discipline that brings young people into the justice system and disproportionately affects, among others, students of color and students with disabilities. The department also remains committed to improving all students’ sense of safety in educational settings. As part of that effort, the department is monitoring robust settlement agreements with school districts across the country to combat discriminatory school discipline practices that prevent children from reaching their full potential. Additionally, in September 2016, together with the Department of Education, the Justice Department announced a series of resources to aid state and local education and law enforcement agencies in responsibly incorporating SROs in the learning environment.