On Friday (May 14), officials with the Charleston Police Department in South Carolina released footage of the in-custody death of 31-year-old Jamal Sutherland. Sutherland died on January 5, 2021 in the Sheriff Al Cannon Detention Center after officers tased and pepper sprayed him multiple times in a cell. His death adds to the mounting questions of law enforcement officers’ use of force when encountering people who struggle with mental illness.
According to reports, Sutherland was in police custody after being arrested at a behavioral health center where he was receiving treatment for mental illness. Police responded to the facility on January 4 after receiving calls about a “large scale fight” that had “erupted between patients and staff.” Sutherland was arrested after police say he allegedly punched a staff member and threw a fax machine.
Officers attempted to take Sutherland from his jail cell to a bond hearing and he reportedly became agitated. Reports estimate that Sutherland was tased six to eight times and pepper sprayed. In the footage, Sutherland can be heard asking officers, “What is the meaning of this?” after they pepper sprayed him twice and deployed a taser the first time. At least two officers had their knees on Jamal's back and legs while during the deadly incident. Medical personnel attempted to revive Sutherland unsuccessfully.
Sutherland’s family requested the footage be released as they seek justice for their loved one.
“Mental illness does not give anybody the right to their hands on my child,” Jamal’s mother, Amy Sutherland said at a news conference on Friday (May 14). “I want y’all to know Jamal was a great man. He had faults like everybody else, but he was a great man,” she said. “I’m content that God has Jamal.”
Mark A. Peper, an attorney representing the family, said they want to know what Jamal asked in his final moments, “What is the meaning of this?”
“People with mental health issues are entitled to the same exact civil rights as you and me and every other healthy, wealthy person in this world,” Peper said.
The county’s sheriff said the department has changed its policy since Sutherland’s killing.
“Since this tragedy occurred, we have assessed our resources and are evaluating options for global improvement, including a focus on mental health awareness,” Charleston County Sheriff Kristin Graziano said.
People in custody will have the option to attend a bond hearing virtually now, under the new protocols. Graziano offered her condolences to the Sutherland family and said the video of his death “bothered” her. “I’m still horrified,” she said. “It bothered me.”
County investigators are determining whether criminal charges will be brought against any of the officers involved and a decision should be made by the end of June.
Photo: Getty Images