Hundreds of 911 calls made from mental health facility where Sutherland sought treatment

Updated: May. 28, 2021 at 1:46 PM EDT
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NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - North Charleston Police Department confirmed their officers have responded to at least 450 “calls for service” from Palmetto Behavioral Health’s location since Jan. 1, 2016.

The is the facility where Jamal Sutherland sought treatment for bipolar schizophrenia when he was arrested on Jan. 4 of this year. North Charleston Police took Sutherland to the Charleston County jail where he was booked on a charge of third-degree assault and battery. Sutherland died approximately 10 hours later after becoming unresponsive as detention deputies worked to forcibly remove him from his cell so that he could attend a bond hearing.

Sutherland is one of 17 people who have been arrested there within the same time span.

“We do have to respond there for calls for service like we have to respond when people call us, so that’s just one location in the city that has a number of calls,” Chief Deputy Scott Deckard said.

A closer look at the 911 calls from 2777 Speissegger Drive over the last two-and-a-half years show reported incidents of sexual assault, missing people, violent mental disorders, and physical disturbances, the designation given incident that led to Sutherland’s arrest.

“When officers respond to individuals in crisis, the last thing we want to do is put them in a situation where they are not getting the treatment they need,” Deckard said. “The situation determines what the officers do in those types of situations.”

However, Sutherland’s mother argued that the facility’s 911 calls are a way to deflect the care of their patients onto law enforcement. She believes Palmetto should have had its own security staff.

“North Charleston Police Department played security guard for them, so that they never needed to get any security in their facility. Never had a need when they know a police department is going to come pick up sick people,” Amy Sutherland said. “They should have had their own workers in there that could have said, ‘Come on, let’s get Jamal down.’”

The choice to take Sutherland to jail was complicated because he was being taken from a facility that knew his history, his medical needs, and his illness like no other.

“In-patient hospitalization is the highest level of care that we have,” Charleston Dorchester Mental Health Center’s Executive Director Jennifer Roberts said. “So, if someone does get out of control and they are unable to be maintained there and it gets to a 911 call, jail kind of is the only place left to take them.”

Roberts said Sutherland was flagged for his mental illness as he was booked into the Charleston County jail, a notification that typically leads to a meeting with the jail’s mental health team. But that help was just beyond his reach.

“They did not meet with him. He was not in the jail long enough to have them meet with him, but we obviously see people when we are asked,” Roberts said.

Roberts said there are plenty of mental health resources for those in custody and training opportunities for law enforcement and some diversion options that help many people dealing with mental illnesses avoid jail all together.

But not every situation fits the mold for the options that are available. Roberts said she would like to see more mental health workers inside the Charleston County jail, in addition to the five from her organization, four from the Charleston Center, and a social worker from the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council.

Meanwhile, Dekcard said the North Charleston Police Department is working to make sure more of its officers are trained to respond to calls involving individuals dealing with a mental health crisis.

The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control has cited Palmetto Behavioral Health for failing to report the incident that led to Jamal Sutherland’s arrest.

Palmetto has until June 4 to turn in a plan of correction to DHEC.

In the meantime, the facility’s leaders have not yet responded to a request for comment.

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