Two sheriff’s deputies in South Carolina were fired on Monday for their role in the death of a Black man on whom they used pepper spray and Tasers after he was taken to jail from a mental health facility in January.
The actions of the deputies while they tried to remove the man from a jail cell — shown in graphic video footage that was released last week by the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office — touched off protests and prompted calls for changes to how people experiencing mental illness are treated while in custody.
The footage showed one of the deputies placing a knee on the back of the man, Jamal Sutherland, and Mr. Sutherland saying, “I can’t breathe,” which drew comparisons to last year’s killing of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis.
Mr. Sutherland, 31, was declared dead soon after the Jan. 5 encounter.
The deputies, Sgt. Lindsay Fickett and Detention Deputy Brian Houle, had been placed on administrative leave before their firing was announced Monday on Twitter by Kristin Graziano, the Charleston County sheriff.
“Today, I made the decision to terminate the two detention deputies involved in this case,” Sheriff Graziano said on Twitter. “I must weigh the interest of public safety for the community against any incident that creates even the perception of an impairment to the operation of the Detention Center for the safety of all residents, staff and our Community.”
It was not immediately clear if Ms. Fickett and Mr. Houle had lawyers, and their home phone numbers were not listed.
The local prosecutor said last week that she was reviewing the results of an investigation conducted by the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division into Mr. Sutherland’s death. The prosecutor, Scarlett A. Wilson, the Ninth Circuit solicitor, said she expected to decide before the end of June whether criminal charges were warranted in the matter.
Mr. Sutherland’s family thanked the public in a statement on Monday for putting pressure on the sheriff’s office to fire the deputies, but said there needed to be greater accountability.
“It is our hope that anyone who gave the orders to extract him from his cell and anyone who stood around and did nothing to prevent his death be immediately fired as well,” the family’s statement said. “We have always said and believed that God will bring to light those who have mistreated his people.”
Mr. Houle had been employed by the sheriff’s office since 2016, and Ms. Fickett joined the office in 2011, Sheriff Graziano said.
Mr. Sutherland had been taken to a mental health facility, Palmetto Lowcountry Behavioral Health, but was arrested there on Jan. 4, the day before he died, after a fight broke out. Workers at the mental health center told responding officers that Mr. Sutherland had assaulted a staff member. He and another patient were arrested on the charge of third-degree assault and battery, according to The Post and Courier of Charleston.
Video of Mr. Sutherland on the day of his arrest showed him in distress, screaming “Let go of me” at officers and speaking of conspiracies, including references to the Illuminati, groups — real and fictitious — dating back centuries and said to have special knowledge.
The deadly encounter began when the deputies tried to extract Mr. Sutherland from a cell at the Sheriff Al Cannon Detention Center, the county jail, to take him to court for a bond hearing on Jan. 5.
The deputies released pepper spray in Mr. Sutherland’s cell twice, according to video, in which Mr. Houle later said that Mr. Sutherland had been hit with the Taser six to eight times. The video showed Mr. Sutherland writhing on the ground before he eventually lost consciousness.
A pathologist ruled the manner of Mr. Sutherland’s death as “undetermined,” stating that he died “as a result of excited state with pharmacotherapeutic effect during subdual process.” Officials declined to discuss the autopsy results further and said that the autopsy report was not a public document and would not be released.