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Sheriff blogs about changes at Charleston County jail, but has refused interviews

Published: Jul. 24, 2021 at 2:47 PM EDT|Updated: Jul. 26, 2021 at 8:14 AM EDT
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CHARLESTON COUNTY, S.C. (WCSC) - Charleston County’s sheriff posted to a blogging platform about changes she has made in her first six months in office at the Al Cannon Detention Center despite refusing multiple requests for an on-camera interview to discuss them.

Sheriff Kristin Graziano, who took over as sheriff on Jan. 4, listed multiple changes on the Medium blogging platform, writing she wanted to share she was sharing the department’s efforts, “especially in the light of the tragic death of Mr. Jamal Sutherland in January.”

Sutherland died at the jail on Jan. 5, after becoming unresponsive while detention officers forcibly removed him from his cell so that he could attend a bond hearing on a misdemeanor assault charge.

READ MORE: Jamal Sutherland Death investigation

Graziano has denied at least six requests for on-camera interviews about Sutherland’s death and changes she planned to make.

In the blog post, meanwhile, Graziano wrote one change she calls “very simple” but “incredibly meaningful” is the terminology for those in custody at the detention center.

“When we refer to the people who reside temporarily inside the detention center, we no longer call them inmates. We call them residents,” she wrote. “This term better reflects who these people are: fellow members of our community. Yes, they have been brought here because it’s alleged they have committed a crime or have gone down the wrong path. But they still deserve their humanity. Calling them residents better reflects my administration’s focus on rehabilitation, instead of punitive incarceration, so we can return these folks back as productive members of our community.”

Graziano said the first change that happened immediately after Sutherland’s death involved an internal policy. She said an “unwritten policy” that was “longstanding” during the previous administration required that those charged with a crime appear before a bond court judge to refuse their right to a bond court hearing.

The new policy, she wrote, allows them to refuse their bond hearing without appearing before a judge.

Sutherland had been brought to the detention center the night before his death by North Charleston Police, who responded to Palmetto Behavioral Health where a fight between patients had been reported.

Attorney Mark Peper, who represents the Sutherland family, said Jamal Sutherland was not involved in that fight. But his family said he became agitated after police arrived at the facility and was accused of assaulting an employee. He was then arrested and taken to the jail on a charge of third-degree assault and battery.

Graziano also says new software allows those at the detention center to attend their bond hearings remotely from their cell if they wish.

Other changes she cited included detention officers being directed to de-escalate and disengage when someone in custody becomes “combative or uncooperative” and detention officers having “a duty to intervene if the see something” they believe goes against policy or safety protocols.

“I’m particularly proud that residents who are experiencing a mental health crisis have more safeguards to protect them — and my employees,” she wrote. “Our facility has traditionally been the largest provider of mental health treatment because it has been a dumping ground. It speaks to the mental health crisis our community is experiencing.”

Under new policy, Graziano said if an agency brings a resident to the detention center and it appears they are “in crisis,” they are evaluated by the detention center’s mobile crisis unit before they are processed and booked in the jail.

“We have turned away residents to be sent to medical facilities because that was the more appropriate setting for stabilization,” she wrote.

She also wrote that the special group of detention officers called in to assist what she called “difficult cases” now has a new name. Instead of the Special Operations Group, they are now referred to as the Emergency Response Team.

Graziano said the sheriff’s office will host a multi-disciplinary summit designed to address the community’s problem and “how to minimize law enforcement’s interactions with people in crisis.” That summit is scheduled for Aug. 4, the post states.

“We’re bringing everyone to the table — legislators, Charleston County Council members, the Department of Mental Health, substance abuse counselors, law enforcement, EMS, and community stakeholders — to learn from the Palm Beach County (Florida) Behavioral Health Unit and the great work they are doing down there,” she wrote.

Graziano concluded the post by saying the steps she outlined mark “only a beginning.”

“We still have much work to do at the detention center, namely in employee recruitment, community outreach, and programming,” she wrote. “But I am very proud of our staff and the dedication that they demonstrate every day on the job. They care about this community and the safety of the residents we temporarily house. Without them, none of this would be possible.”

Deputies delayed release of video in Sutherland case for months, solicitor says

Graziano held a news conference on Sutherland’s death on May 14, during which she said her goal is to be “completely transparent while ensuring there is also due process and justice for all involved” in Sutherland’s death. That news conference followed the release of videos that showed what led up to Sutherland’s death.

The video showed deputies spraying an irritant at Sutherland when he refused to drop a spoon in his hand, then showed deputies fired a stun gun at him multiple times.

Days after the release of the video, Graziano announced she had terminated Detention Sgt. Lindsay Fickett and Detention Deputy Brian Houle, the two detention officers who were seen in video released by the sheriff’s office forcibly removing Sutherland from his cell

Charleston County Council voted unanimously in May to approve a $10 million settlement with the Sutherland family in connection with Jamal Sutherland’s death. That settlement marked the largest civil rights settlement in the state.

At the time the settlement was approved, Graziano released a statement saying she was grateful the county had approved it, and said the law enforcement community would “continue to work to develop a model design that is beneficial to treating mental illness with a continuum of care, therefore having less negative impacts on the community.”

Those officers were initially placed on paid administrative leave and then on administrative duty before their termination.

The case received nationwide attention. U.S. Rep. Nancy Mace, who represents South Carolina’s First Congressional District, became a vocal critic of Graziano’s handling of the Sutherland case, pointing to the initial reports about Sutherland’s death while in custody released from the sheriff’s office, which referred to “an unresponsive inmate … [who] was pronounced deceased inside the facility.”

But that initial report did not mention that deputies had repeatedly used their Taser weapons on him or any mention that Sutherland was mentally ill.

Mace called the report “incredibly misleading” and criticized Graziano’s delay in holding a news conference on Sutherland’s death.

“The fact that it took Sheriff Graziano almost five months to have a press conference on this horrific event that happened in the detention center that she leads? This event is a test of truth and a test of character and she has failed on both counts,” Mace said.

Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson has not yet said whether she plans to file criminal charges in Sutherland’s death. She previously said she anticipated having the information she needed to determine whether criminal charges would be viable in court by the end of June. But she later said a review of additional information was still necessary.

Wilson then said in mid-July the sheriff’s office provided her office with 162 gigabytes of information regarding the Special Operations Group, which she said consisted of hours of videos and hundreds of documents. She said officials with the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, her office and later the FBI had been requesting the information for nearly seven months.

Graziano released a statement which placed the blame on not releasing information quickly enough on the previous sheriff’s office administration’s lack of training records involving the Special Operations Group.

“As a result of the prior administration’s lack of training records as it pertains to the SOG unit, it has been difficult to obtain all information as quickly as we would like,” Graziano said. “However, I am committed to ensuring that the Sutherland family get the thorough investigation that they deserve. I will continue to work closely with the solicitor in her investigation.”

Groups have held protests outside Wilson’s office demanding criminal charges and Sutherland’s mother, Amy Sutherland, has appeared at some of those protests likewise calling for criminal charges.

Wilson has not suggested a timeframe on when the review of the newly-released information would be complete.

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