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S.C. High School Arrest Tape Reignites Debate Over Police Brutality


This tape has re-ignited the debate over how police treat black people in this country.


SENIOR DEPUTY BEN FIELDS: Hands behind your back. Give me your hands.

SHAPIRO: Give me your hands, he's saying. A white police officer flips over a desk with a black female high school student sitting in it. He drags her out.

This happened in a classroom in Spring Valley High School in Columbia, S.C. Other students in the class recorded the encounter on their phones. The officer, Senior Deputy Ben Fields, has been placed on leave. The FBI has launched a civil rights investigation into this arrest of the student.

We're joined now by professor Seth Stoughton from the University of South Carolina School of Law. He served as a police officer and now teaches criminal law.

Welcome back to the program.

SETH STOUGHTON: Thank you, pleasure to be here.

SHAPIRO: What was your first thought when you saw this video?

STOUGHTON: Honestly, my first thought is that this is the high school that my children will be attending. We live a couple hundred yards from Spring Valley High School. So this one hit very, very close to home.

SHAPIRO: The officer in this incident was a sheriff's deputy serving as a school resource officer. What is a school resource officer's job?

STOUGHTON: A school resource officer is embedded within a school to assist the school administration with anything that would involve a criminal law component - for example, the presence of a firearm on campus. In the worst-case scenario, an active shooter situation. Columbine is really what drove the explosion of school resource officers. And in many cases, they're assigned to schools to prevent that sort of very high-risk, very dangerous but also incredibly rare situation. After that, the role can be very, very confused. Some schools use school resource officers to assist with discipline. Other schools, their role is more clearly defined and the officer is supposed to engage with students as part of a community policing project but does not interfere or have any role with administrative discipline. Their role is strictly police based. They're essentially on patrol but at a school, and they respond to only limited events.

SHAPIRO: You live not far from this school. Is it a place that has problems with violence, with gangs? Are there shootings? Does it feel like a place that needs a significant police presence?

STOUGHTON: No, certainly not. I - every school has some amount of problems, but other than those generalized problems, no. This is a school that I expect my children will attend and that I have previously been very happy that my children will attend.

SHAPIRO: In the context of the national conversation about police violence, particularly against black people, and the Black Lives Matter movement, how does this add to or change our understanding of the state of policing in America today?

STOUGHTON: We should be asking how often something like this happens, and then we should be really, really, deeply disturbed when we do not have an answer to that question. We have such an appalling lack of information about police violence that even as someone who researches, who studies police professionally and has done so for years, I cannot tell you how often police use violence in schools. I cannot tell you how often they use violence against young people. I really cannot tell you how often they use violence against people of color.

SHAPIRO: That's professor Seth Stoughton of the University of South Carolina School of Law. Thank you very much for joining us.

STOUGHTON: My pleasure, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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