NORTH CHARLESTON — The Charleston County jail's Special Operations Group used unnecessary force on inmates for years before Jamal Sutherland's death in January, according to an analysis conducted for The Post and Courier.
Members of the jail's tactical team used Tasers and pepper spray to subdue inmates, including those exhibiting signs of mental illness, for refusing to exit their cells or arguing with deputies.
In one case in December 2019, a man who was ranting unintelligibly in his cell was stunned with a Taser and placed in a restraint chair so he could be taken to a bond court hearing.
A year later, that same reason would be used to pepper spray, repeatedly shock and physically subdue Sutherland, a 31-year-old mentally ill Black man, leading to his death.
In Sutherland’s case, a correctional use-of-force expert hired by the 9th Circuit Solicitor’s Office said in a recent report, the force was unnecessary because jail policy dictated inmates should not be forced to attend bond hearings except by judicial order.
In another case, an inmate covered in his own feces was stunned with a Taser after turning his back on deputies in a jail cell. The inmate did not appear to be aggressive, instead offering only passive resistance to deputies.
Aubrey Land, a correctional use-of-force expert from Florida, reviewed videos and reports from nearly two dozen cases where members of SOG used force on inmates.
Land has worked as a law enforcement, prison and jail consultant for more than four years. Before becoming a consultant, he worked for the Florida Department of Corrections as a prison inspector, conducting investigations into uses of force, deaths and criminal conduct within the state's correctional facilities.
Land said the cases raised questions about how SOG deputies were trained to use force at the facility, particularly on inmates exhibiting signs of mental illness. In the cases he reviewed, the tactics team was "heavy handed" in its use of force, and failed to attempt de-escalation techniques before resorting to Tasers and pepper spray, Land said.
Sutherland died Jan. 5 at the jail after deputies Brian Houle and Lindsay Fickett, a sergeant, used pepper spray, Tasers and physical force to drag him from his cell for the bond court hearing.
Graphic video of Sutherland’s death was released in May, leading to an outcry among residents. That same month, the Charleston County Council and city of North Charleston agreed to pay a total of $10 million to Sutherland’s family to resolve claims related to his death.
Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson said, at a July 26 news conference announcing she would not pursue charges against Houle and Fickett in Sutherland's death, that the deputies had not gone "rogue." They followed their training and jail policies or procedures during the encounter with Sutherland.
But that was part of the problem.
Gary Raney, a correctional use-of-force expert hired by Wilson to investigate Sutherland's death, wrote a 52-page report on problems he uncovered in training, policy and supervision at the jail.
He found deputies with SOG were trained to use aggression and intimidation to control inmates, seemingly ignorant of de-escalation techniques that were particularly critical to working with mentally ill inmates.
When the group's aggressive tactics violated the jail's use of-force policies, evidence suggested superiors turned a blind eye.
In his report, Raney was particularly critical of U.S. C-SOG, a former Virginia company founded by Joseph Garcia that provided training to the sheriff's special operations deputies from 2008 to 2018.
"It wasn't rogue," the solicitor said at the July news conference. "It had happened many, many times before. And there was a pat on the back and a march on to the next one."
The Post and Courier filed a request in June under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act for reports and, when available, videos documenting SOG's uses of force at the jail dating back to January 2019. The newspaper specifically requested materials related to two types of force: cell extractions and Taser deployments, since both were involved in Sutherland's death.
7 of 23 cases noted
The Charleston County Sheriff's Office provided materials regarding 23 uses of force during that period. Of those cases, seven involved inmates who were exhibiting clear signs of mental illness. That included inmates who were speaking unintelligibly, nude, covered in feces, or described as "delusional."
Human Rights Watch, a non-governmental advocacy organization, released a report in 2015 on correctional use of force against inmates with mental disabilities. The organization said inmates with psychotic disorders, such as schizophrenia, may find it next to impossible to abide by, or even understand, prison regulations when delusions and hallucinations distort their understanding of reality.
Yet mentally ill inmates who break rules are punished the same as any other inmate — through isolation, discipline and use of force, the report states.
Proponents of chemical agents and electronic stun devices say the weapons minimize injuries to inmates and staff, the report states. But the quickness and ease with which they can be used can lead to unnecessary and punitive force, the report states.
And the weapons cannot guarantee compliance from a mentally ill inmate.
"Psychosis may render a prisoner incapable of understanding that compliance with an order is the fastest way to avoid the pain of pepper spray or electric shocks," the report states. "In fact, the infliction of pain may strengthen paranoid delusions."
The report recommended that cell extractions, electronic stun devices, and chemical sprays only be used against inmates with mental disabilities if there is an emergency, or after deputies or mental health staff have made a meaningful effort to coax the inmate into compliance, including allowing for a "cooling off" time.
The Post and Courier asked Land to review the information to determine whether SOG deputies used unnecessary force in any of the cases.
Raney also agreed to review some of the cases.
Based on the 23 cases provided, Land identified several cases he believed raised concerns, and overall he questioned the tactics used by SOG, particularly during cell extractions.
In his report, Raney pointed out that only two deputies — Houle and Fickett — were involved in Sutherland's cell extraction. It was generally accepted jail practice to use four to six deputies to remove a person from a cell, Raney said. One deputy enters with a shield, while the others enter to control each of the inmate's extremities.
But SOG training at the jail had reduced that number to two deputies, and sometimes to only one. This meant deputies were required to use greater force to subdue and restrain a resisting inmate, the report states.
Even when other deputies were nearby, Fickett said in an interview with investigators, they were instructed to "stay out of the way" during cell extractions, the report states.
In the cell extractions reviewed, the jail regularly used fewer than four deputies to forcibly remove an inmate from a cell.
Land criticized the jail for using so few deputies to perform cell extractions.
On June 12, 2020, three SOG deputies were dispatched to remove an inmate covered in feces from his cell so he could be taken to the behavioral management unit, according to a use-of-force report.
A strap was applied to the cell door and a SOG deputy told the man, who was sitting on the floor, to come to the door so he could be restrained, the report states. The man is seen in surveillance footage approaching the door and peering out. A SOG deputy points a Taser at the man, at which point he turns his back on the officers.
The SOG deputy shoots the man in the back with his Taser, causing him to crash to the ground. He is then dragged out of the cell. His body is limp as the deputies put him in handcuffs.
According to the report, the man was forced to shower and then taken by paramedics to the hospital. It is unclear in the report what injuries, if any, he suffered.
Land said he would like more information about the case, but he described the use of force as "disturbing."
'Threat and intimidation approach'
Raney also reviewed the case. He said no de-escalation was documented in the report, though the video appears to show one deputy talking to the inmate for some time.
The SOG deputy pointed the Taser at the inmate even though the inmate was complying, Raney said.
"It's the threat and intimidation approach again rather than good jail tactics," he said.
Finally, the inmate was only passively resisting orders, which made the use of force unreasonable, Raney said.
Under jail policy, deputies are prohibited from using Tasers on passively resisting inmates.
Land said another case was troubling because of contradictions between the report and video.
Two SOG deputies were dispatched Feb. 25, 2019, to assist in the medical infirmary, according to the use-of-force report. When they arrived, they found a woman "visibly upset" at the deputies' desk. The woman said she "was ready" and "was not going to cooperate," the report states.
One SOG deputy approached the woman "to see what movements she would make as far as complying," the report states. He claimed in the report she faced him in a "combative manner" and slapped her hands together as if ready to fight.
In response, the SOG deputy stunned her with his Taser.
The video of the encounter contradicts the SOG deputy's report. She appears to step away from him as he approaches and gestures with her hands while arguing.
"There is no indication that she goes at him in an aggressive manner, or that she takes a fighting stance with him," Land said.
Land said the use of force was unjustified and excessive.
Charleston County sheriff's Capt. Roger Antonio, a department spokesman, said in a statement the use of force was reviewed by chain of command at the time and it was determined no policy violation occurred. Antonio said the video supports the report written by the detention deputy.
On Dec. 15, 2019, two SOG deputies were dispatched to remove an inmate from his cell for bond court, a report states. The man had his face in his hands and was "pacing the cell ranting," according to the report.
When they attempted to open the door to speak with him, he began screaming "Close the door!"
The SOG deputies told superiors the inmate was refusing to attend, but they were ordered to remove him from his cell, the report states.
The inmate initially appeared to agree to be restrained when asked to place his hands through a meal service hole in the cell door. However, after his left wrist was handcuffed, he said, "I got them now," and tried to pull away from deputies while holding the door shut. The SOG deputies opened the door while one deputy trained his Taser on the inmate, ordering him to comply. When the inmate ignored the order, he stunned him. The inmate was then restrained and taken to bond court.
Inmates were not required to attend bond court under jail policy, except by judicial order. But a 2017 email mandated all inmates must attend their bond hearings, using force if required, and deputies followed the email, according to Raney's report.
On Jan. 5, the same erroneous practice would cause Sutherland to be removed from his cell, leading to his death.
The use-of-force report states that the clerk's office at the bond court said the inmate had to attend his hearing, but Raney, who reviewed the case, questioned that.
During his own investigation, he spoke with two bond court judges who said they had never ordered an inmate to attend a hearing because it was unlawful to do so.
Raney said the use of the Taser was likely not unreasonable because the inmate had a loose handcuff, which was a weapon. But he said the SOG deputies should not have opened the cell door once the inmate had the handcuffs.
Raney reviewed a third case from Feb. 13, 2020.
In that case, an inmate in the medical unit refused to return his food tray to deputies. Three SOG deputies were dispatched and used pepper spray in the inmate's cell after he refused orders to return the item. The inmate allowed himself to be handcuffed after the spray was deployed.
Again, no de-escalation techniques were documented, Raney said, and no threat is described other than that the inmate "acted in an aggressive manner." Raney questioned what such a vague statement could possibly mean.
The inmate was passively resisting, Raney determined, which did not justify the use of pepper spray.
Charleston County Sheriff Kristin Graziano, who took office just hours before Sutherland's death, has said reforming the jail has been one of her main priorities since taking office.
Graziano said her staff is working to rewrite policies that were vague or did not conform to best practices. They have also created new policies around mental health and tactics training.
Mike Stanley, a former SWAT commander, has taken over leadership of the Special Operations Group, which was renamed the Emergency Response Team, according to Graziano.
Changes have been made so that people in a mental health crisis after an arrest will be evaluated by a crisis unit before being booked into jail. The jail also has a tracking system that will alert medical staff that a resident needs a mental evaluation.
Solicitor Wilson said at the news conference last month she has asked the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate Sutherland's death for possible civil rights violations.