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Experts say decision whether to take someone to jail or the hospital is up to officer’s discretion

Updated: May. 27, 2021 at 5:00 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - The video of a man with mental illness dying after deputies used a Taser inside the Charleston County jail shocked the Lowcountry; but some wonder why he was even there to begin with.

It’s been two weeks since the video was released by the Charleston County Sheriff showing the moments Jamal Sutherland refused to leave his cell for a bond hearing, prompting detention deputies to use Tasers multiple times after which he ultimately died outside of his cell.

Sutherland was initially arrested the night before for a misdemeanor assault and battery charge at a facility serving people with mental illnesses. His family says he was receiving treatment from Palmetto Lowcountry Behavioral Health for his bipolar schizophrenia. But there have been a lot of questions about why Sutherland wasn’t taken to a hospital to be examined before being taken to jail.

“Should they have taken him to the jail or should they have taken him to the hospital?” Richland County Representative Todd Rutherford questioned. “We heard testimony that ‘no’ he should have gone to the hospital and been checked first.”

According to Hayden Smith, a professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of South Carolina, says the decision of what to do with people with mental illness often boils down to an officer’s judgement in the moment.

“In this case it was a misdemeanor, so they do have a lot more discretion in terms of what they do,” Smith says. “Most of it is based on the offender’s behavior.”

Charleston and Berkeley County Public Defender Ashley Pennington agrees.

“We ask a lot of our first responders and our jail staff, who are underpaid, who are not necessarily at all trained in mental health disciplines to make the right call and to know the difference between someone who is being willful versus someone who is out of touch with reality,” Pennington says. “My heart goes out to everyone in this case.”

But it’s not just the officers, Pennington says Sutherland’s actions played a key role too.

“I’ve listened over the last several weeks to the concerns and one of them was, ‘Well, why didn’t we just take him to the hospital?’ And the answer is that they couldn’t,” Pennington explains. “There are no hospitals in South Carolina or in this region that would have accepted a person who was, at that time, violent.”

So, was jail the only other alternative?

Smith says South Carolina is behind when it comes to alternatives like jail diversion centers – where patients could be treated for their mental illness while also being in a secure setting if they committed if they committed a crime.

“When there’s no other decision that can be made when officers simply don’t have those options jail becomes kind of an easy option and a final solution,” Smith says.

“Our jails have become essentially an extension of the mental health system in South Carolina and all across the country,” Pennington adds.

Smith says about 30 to 40 percent of male inmates in South Carolina jails and prisons have a diagnosable mental health condition. A reason lawmakers say more funding is needed for the mental health sector in general.

“We’re simply saying that we want the resources to be given so that the job can be done correctly,” Rutherford says. “And if what it took was another million dollars to make sure that Mr. Sutherland didn’t lose his life at the jail, then we should have allocated that. If what it took was more money to make sure that African Americans do not continue to fall victims to the police, then we can either pay it on the front end, or we can pay it on the back end with settlements.”

In regard to Sutherland, Charleston County just approved to pay the Sutherland family a $10 million settlement.

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