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Commentary: Release video evidence in Jamal Sutherland death in detention

Our hearts go out to the family of Jamal Sutherland, who died Jan. 5 in the Al Cannon Detention Center. Losing a loved one is never easy, and to compound that with the uncertainty of justice must be torment. We remain respectful of their pain and the memory of their loved one.

We are concerned that there has been an effort to suppress the video evidence that could show how he died, due to law enforcement fears about the potential community reaction. Attorneys with experience in cases involving police violence, as well as national civil rights activists, say withholding such evidence from the public hurts the case. These same legal professionals cite possible reasons for the delay: Either the evidence does not support the case, or the case has fallen into the old-boy system where it will be dealt with quietly. History would suggest the latter reason, but we can only speculate until it is released to the public.

We cannot remain silent on this matter. Our concern is historic and systematic racism. Since January, numerous black men and women have been killed by police. Our community demands accountability and transparency in all matters of possible police misconduct. Delays in the release of the video, and on a decision on potential charges, are unacceptable to the African American community. Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson must expose the truth, regardless of the outcome.

Exposing the truth — not hiding from it — is how this nation moves forward. African Americans view discrimination, violence and bias as a public health crisis perpetrated against our community by law enforcement agencies and the judicial system. Reforms have never been welcomed by the perpetrators of discriminatory policies and practices or by the people who indirectly benefit from this racist system.

The Sutherland case highlights the need for reform in local law enforcement agencies, particularly in the area of mental health. Jamal Sutherland’s family had taken him to a mental health facility, and we still don’t understand why he ended up in jail, or how or why he died. After the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent Charleston protest, the Lowcountry Black Leadership Coalition developed reform ideas that cover educational, criminal and economic justice policies. These policies have been updated to include reforms for mental illness in jails and prisons.

Racial bias audits are good, and we applaud them, but as we have seen with the city of Charleston’s racial bias audit, the results can be underwhelming and yield no tangible change to policy or how the department deals with black folk. We hope that the upcoming audits of North Charleston and Charleston County will recommend stronger accountability and punitive measures for offenses.

Here are the mental health policies advocated by the coalition and received by North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey, County Council Chairman Teddie Pryor and Sheriff Kristin Graziano:

  • Invest in real diversion. Community-based mental health treatment and housing through a special diversion court would stop mentally ill homeless people from cycling through jail, court and the streets. There has been an increase across the country in the use of diversion programs such as mental health courts and drug courts. These courts work in collaboration with mental health and substance-use treatment providers to help individuals who have mental health or substance-use problems.
  • Discontinue the use of force during psychiatric incarceration. We advocate for the use of de-escalation methods as well as licensed practitioners instead of restraints and Al Cannon Detention Center incarceration.
  • Invest in services. Assertive community treatment and multi-systemic therapy already have established strong evidence for reducing days of incarceration.

These reforms would protect black men and women in the Charleston region and must be enacted.

But the solicitor also must release the video in the Jamal Sutherland death and make a decision on whether to prosecute. One attorney told us there may be an appropriate time to meet to discuss a unified statement, but that now is not the time.

To anyone who would ask us to wait — until the time is right, until the verdict in the George Floyd case, until the solicitor is ready so we don’t pressure her into making a wrong decision — we say to you: In light of everything happening to our community in its relationship to law enforcement in this nation, if not now, when? We have been told constantly that “now is not the right time,” and history always contradicts. We need justice, transparency and accountability — now.

Kwadjo Campbell is a member of the Lowcountry Black Leadership Coalition.

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