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Hicks: Video of Charleston County jail death is coming, and it’s not good

Sheriff Al Cannon Detention Center (copy) (copy)

The Sheriff Al Cannon Detention Center. Staff/file

Jamal Sutherland is not yet a household name, but every law enforcement and elected official in the Lowcountry already knows who he is.

They fear that when the video of his death at the Charleston County jail goes public — and that could be as soon as this week — everyone in the country will know Sutherland’s name. State and local officials are quietly preparing for that to go poorly.

Sutherland, 31, died on Jan. 5, as jail personnel tried to take him from his cell to a bond hearing on a misdemeanor charge. Those who’ve seen the video say it’s horrifying; they evoke the name “George Floyd” and predict that some people will call it murder.

The truth may be more complicated — a pathologist says the cause of Sutherland’s death remains “undetermined” — but such nuance sometimes doesn’t translate on TV and social media these days. Especially when an African American prisoner dies in the custody of white jailers, and especially with strained police-community relations across the nation.

There are good reasons for local officials to be nervous, because we’ve seen this sort of thing all too often.

Local and state investigators are examining Sutherland’s death, and the feds may soon get involved. But the inevitable delays of a complicated investigation have led activists to suggest there’s some sort of cover-up.

Which doesn’t help Sutherland’s family, who watched him battle mental illness for years, then had to watch a video of his death. It’s hard to imagine the pain and anguish they’ve suffered, but it’s understandable that they want those responsible for this tragedy to be punished.

It’s too soon to say whether criminal charges or civil rights violations are warranted. Solicitor Scarlett Wilson on Tuesday released the findings of Dr. J.C. Upshaw Downs, a pathologist who suggested Sutherland’s reaction to medication may have played a role in his death. Downs says he found no “unusual or excessive interactions or areas of direct concern” that indicate illegal acts by deputies — which Wilson must prove to prosecute.

But Wilson seems unconvinced by the initial reports, saying Sutherland’s death “raised serious concerns and begged many questions.” To be thorough, she’s bringing in other experts to gather more evidence and opinions.

This week, Charleston County officials — who control the budget for Sheriff Kristin Graziano, the jail, the 911 center and EMS — will begin mediation with the family.

Some County Council members claim they have no liability, and no appetite to bail out the new sheriff (who took office the day Sutherland was arrested). Council members say the county insurance policy has a maximum $1 million payout for wrongful death … and that’s all they’re willing to offer.

The family no doubt believes it deserves much more. Walter Scott’s family got $6 million; Floyd’s, $27 million.

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Officials around the community fear County Council isn’t taking this seriously enough, that insulting the family with a lowball offer could make the situation even worse. A lawsuit is likely to follow immediately. That would lead to the video’s release, long before the solicitor and SLED conclude inquiries to determine what it shows.

In such cases, perception often becomes reality. And others argue that the county’s mediation matters little; even if the family is compensated fairly, even if the deputies involved face some sort of charges, it won’t stop the inevitable. Not in today’s political climate.

Perhaps county officials don’t realize how important this case is because many of them haven’t seen the video, and the story has gotten little attention.

Shortly after the incident, family attorney Mark Peper told The Post and Courier’s Gregory Yee that Sutherland was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia in his teens, and has received regular treatment ever since.

His parents occasionally checked him into Palmetto Lowcountry Behavorial Health when symptoms of his illness surfaced. They last took him in just after New Year’s. Then, on Jan. 4, two patients at the center attacked a staff member. Sutherland was in the room and became agitated, eventually tackling another staffer.

North Charleston police and Charleston County EMS responded, Sutherland was charged with one count of third-degree assault and battery, then transported to the jail. Activists argue Sutherland simply should have been ticketed for the misdemeanor. If he had to leave the facility, they say, he should have been taken to a hospital.

At the Al Cannon Detention Center, Sutherland refused to leave his cell for a bond hearing; deputies were ordered to take him anyway. People who’ve viewed the video say a deputy put a knee on Sutherland’s back while handcuffing him. That is legal police procedure, but to some it will no doubt evoke the memory of former Minneapolis cop Derek Chauvin holding his knee on Floyd’s neck.

That’s just one of several bad images reportedly on the video. Sutherland had a spit-guard covering his face, which is jail protocol. And deputies fired stun guns repeatedly in an attempt to subdue him.

No matter what investigators conclude, whether there was any crime that can be prosecuted, several local leaders fear those horrific images will draw national attention and spark immediate outrage. And all this could play out as the Lowcountry is busy with the PGA Championship next week on Kiawah.

Charleston remained relatively calm in the aftermath of Scott’s 2015 killing and the massacre at Emanuel AME. But that was six years, and a lifetime, ago. Last May, protests over Floyd’s death turned into a King Street riot.

The city had no role in this incident — but it had nothing to do with Floyd, either. That distinction didn’t matter then, and probably won’t now.

Because local officials fear more unrest is inevitable once more people know Jamal Sutherland’s name.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com.

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