Law enforcement career on hold, ex-Deputy Ben Fields looks to the future
COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - Oct. 26, 2015, is a day Ben Fields will never forget. In fact, there's not a day that goes by where he doesn't think about it.
"That day changed my life probably forever," Fields said.
It's been more than 15 months since the former Richland County deputy was fired after using force to remove an unruly student from class at Spring Valley High School.
On that day, Fields' attorney promised that the deputy would one day address the particulars of the viral, caught-on-camera arrest. That day has finally come after state and federal investigators cleared Fields of any wrongdoing.
The morning of Oct. 26, 2015, Fields, a school resource officer with the Richland County Sheriff's Department, was called to a 3rd period algebra class at Spring Valley High School to deal with a disruptive student. Records say the student told her teacher to "get out of her face" when he tried to take her phone and make her do schoolwork.
Fields said the student had been asked several times to put the phone away, but the student would continue to take it back out. At that point, Fields said, an administrator was called and told the teacher to place the student in in-school suspension. However, Fields said, the student refused to leave class.
"That teacher then called the administrator to say, 'Hey, this student is not compliant. She's not leaving the classroom like I told her to. Can you come remove her?' At that point in time, the administrator went to the classroom, asked her more than one time to come with him and leave, and she refused. He told her, 'If you don't come with me, I'm going to have to call a deputy to have you removed.' And her response was, 'Do what you need to do.'"
"When I walked into the classroom, at that point in time and laid eyes on her, I knew exactly who she was," Fields said. "So, I asked her nicely. I said, 'Why don't you come with me, and we can work this out?' And her response was, 'I didn't do anything.' And I responded saying, 'I'm not saying you did, but why don't you come out of the classroom with me, and we can talk about this. You know me. You know I'm a fair guy.' The reason I said that is because I had investigated a fight that she had been in before in a previous year with another student, and I treated her very fairly. I didn't charge her in the case because I thought it was a situation where she was being bullied and picked on, so she did know me. She goes, 'I don't know you.' She was clearly disturbing school at that point in time – disturbing the classroom and the other 20 kids or so that were in the class, and she needed to be removed."
Multiple clips of video captured what happened next.
"As I approached the desk, I went to place her under arrest by grabbing her left arm. She pulled away from me. As I'm trying to grab her left arm, I'm trying to reach around her to get control of her right arm as well, and as I do, she pulls away, and she strikes me in the face. At that point in time, she locked her leg into the desk, and this thing escalated very quickly, as most law enforcement situations can when the suspect is going to not comply with the police," Fields said.
Fields said the student continued to fight him and the desk flipped over backward because she was still locked into it. That's when Fields said his law enforcement training kicked in.
"At that point in time, I use something that is very known in law enforcement, which is hard empty-hand control called muscling techniques, to pull her from the desk. She goes to the floor. Once on the floor, I'm still trying to gain control of her. She's still fighting. She's still not complying. I'm giving her verbal commands. 'Put your hands your back.' Once on the floor, I'm finally able to get on top of her. She's punching me in the chest. She grabs hold of a microphone cord from my ear to my school radio, and won't let go of it. I finally get one handcuff on her, and at that point in time, the other deputy came in and we finished handcuffing her," Fields said.
"As I handed her off to him, so he could take her out of the classroom, the other young lady was cursing the whole time, carrying on, yelling obscenities at me, and things like that, so much so that the administrator had to get between her and me, because he was afraid that she was going to come after me. At that point in time, I stood up, and I also arrested her for disturbing school."
It was the video, however, that exploded online after it was posted. Even Fields said he can understand why people thought his actions may have been harsh.
"Well, I think on the outside looking in, I can understand why people would say that," Fields said. "I think that people saying it doesn't look good or saying it looks harsh – I respect what they're saying, but this job can be hard sometimes, and it can be difficult, and we have to make difficult decisions. When someone chooses to fight the police, when someone chooses not to comply, things usually aren't going to look very good."
Fields said, however, he was not aware of the other students who recorded the incident and it didn't even cross his mind.
"After the incident took place, I had the second young lady that I arrested in my office, and I was aware that she had tried to videotape some of the incident that took place. She actually offered to erase the video, and I told her not to. I said, 'No, we're not erasing things.' She apologized for her behavior and understood, at the time, her behavior was not right. She apologized to me, and then she was transported. The second young lady, which is the first young lady that I arrested, I had her down in my office as well, and we had a conversation. She was apologetic for her actions as well. We had a good conversation, her guardian came, and picked her up."
It was at that point, Fields said, that he went on with his day until about 4 p.m.
"I got a phone call from my captain telling me I need to come inside because the media was showing up to see me. I still was not really aware of anything going on until I went inside and met with my captain," Fields said.
Fields' actions had become a trending topic on social media and a breaking news story across the globe.
"I learned from watching WIS, of all things, that I was suspended without pay," Fields said.
The next day, a Richland County captain typed up a memo, explaining what happened in the incident.
"I think the memo speaks for itself," Fields said. "Because of her act of aggression, which was her punching me in the face and then punching me repeatedly on the ground, according to that memo, I could have used a Taser on the young lady. I could have used a K9 dog on her as well as some other things, and I chose not to do those things."
However, by then, the firestorm online had reached Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott. Lott fired Fields the next day.
"I was told to be at the sheriff's office about 10 o'clock, so I arrived there," Fields said. "Me and my captain and the sheriff all met, and I'm not going to get into too many details about that conversation. It was just obvious that the sheriff did not approve of what I did and he couldn't keep me."
In a news conference at the time, Sheriff Leon Lott explained why he terminated Fields.
"It's the fact that he picked that student up, and he threw the student across the room," Lott said. "That is not a proper technique and it should not be used in law enforcement. And based on that, that is a violation of our policy and approximately 20 minutes ago, School Resource Officer Ben Fields was terminated from the Richland County Sheriff's Department."
What did Fields think of Lott's assessment of the incident?
"Like I explained that day – the day I was terminated – to the sheriff is that it was not a toss. I am pulling her from the chair, and she's resisting. She's locked into the chair. I understand what it looks like, but she's pulling, and I'm pulling. And so, I have said all along that it was not a toss in no way, shape, or form. It was me pulling her trying to get her away from that chair, and when she came loose, she came loose," Fields said.
The story faded from the headlines, but Fields was still living it. Back then, he was still under investigation by not only SLED but the FBI as well.
"Well, I think anytime you're under federal investigation that's not a good thing," Fields said. "You know, I had never been under any kind of criminal investigation before in my life, so for me, it was new for sure."
Just weeks ago, Fields learned he won't be charged by the FBI. In a letter to SLED, Fifth Circuit Solicitor Dan Johnson made the same decision for the state last September. That letter included statements from many of the students in class that day. Many of them supported Fields. Some even said he shouldn't have been fired.
"The incident looked worse in the video than it did in the classroom," one student said.
The arrested students' guardian also gave a statement.
"According to guardian, after viewing the video of Fields' altercation with the student, the guardian believes that Fields did not do anything that was inappropriate," the letter said.
In his report, Johnson concluded Fields' actions did "not warrant criminal charges." The solicitor also dismissed the charges against both students involved in the incident.
However, Johnson said that he did agree with Lott's decision to fire Fields despite the lack of charges.
"It was a long process," Fields said. "It's been a long process. I knew it would go that way. I knew it would come out in my favor because I knew I had not violated the law."
Now, Fields is suing the Richland County Sheriff's Department and the Richland School District 2. In the end, Fields said it's all about restoring his name.
"I think my name has been cleared. Let me be clear about that. I think the highest law enforcement agency in the land cleared me. That matters. For me, my name is clear. That's the bottom line," Fields said.
However, Fields still feels the impact of what happened inside the high school more than 15 months ago.
"Some of this is very personal, obviously, but it's been tough," Fields said. "You know, you invest into a job for 12 years – almost 12 years. I was so invested into Spring Valley and in Richland Two as well in that community up there. Again, I was a strength coach there. I was a football coach there. At one point in time, I coached basketball for two years. I had built relationships with parents, with students, with teachers, administrators, the community
as a whole."
"I think when something like this happens, it ruins your reputation tremendously because again people don't know the whole story," Fields said. "They're judging it based on what one or two people say, based on a 7-second video, and it just simply wasn't the case."
Solicitor Johnson appears to agree with that assessment, according to his letter to SLED and said that a rush to judgment hurt his ability to prosecute the case.
"Public officials are not being allowed the necessary time to fully investigate an incident before action is demanded to be taken," he wrote.
Fields said he also agrees with Johnson.
"I would just encourage people, and I would caution people, that doing that isn't always the wisest thing, because, one, you don't know when it could be you in a situation, and it's very difficult and very tough, or a loved one that you know being in a situation where the public – and media, if you want to say so, that's fine – is judging a person based on seven seconds or 10 seconds, and we've seen that long before, long before, my video ever came out or my incident ever took place," Fields said. "And so, I think I would just caution people and just ask people just use wisdom. There's always more to the story, and that's important."
But, Fields said the feedback he's received after the incident hasn't been all bad.
"You know, it's been 15 months and every single person that's come up to me -- and I'm out everywhere – I'm out all the time – has just been 100 percent support," Fields said. "I'm very thankful for that."
Fields said he's since taken time off from law enforcement to re-evaluate his career and his life.
"A good friend reached out to me for a job. I won't get into what the job is but just a great guy – very loyal guy. As far as law enforcement goes, it has been tough to find a job," Fields said. "I've applied for two law enforcement jobs, which haven't worked out for me."
Fields said he's not shying away from returning to law enforcement if the right opportunity presents itself.
"Well, again, I've done it for 12 years. You know, I'd love to get back into the coaching world. I'd love to get back into the law enforcement world. I hope those doors, at some point in time, open up for me again, but, again, right now, I work for good people, and I'm very thankful for that," Fields said.
But many have wondered if Fields would have done anything differently if he had the opportunity to return to Oct. 26, 2015
"I think, looking at everything that took place that day, I think it's so important that I stand by the fact that I did my job, and I followed the law," Fields said. "I think when you do those things as a law enforcement officer, what more can you do? You know, it'd be nice to set up the nice scenario and circumstance where you can change things that day. I don't believe in that. I believe that, again, I acted appropriately that day. I stayed within my training. I stayed within policy. You can't do much more than that. You cannot do much more than that. Not every arrest is going to be picture perfect."
When asked about monetary damages he is seeking in the lawsuit, Fields said that's not something he's even thinking about currently. But what about how his attorney suggested Fields was "hung out to dry"?
Fields said people can decide that for themselves, but they need to look at all the facts when doing so.
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