Protesters marched May 18 to call on the state solicitor to charge the two deputies involved with Jamal Sutherland's death | Sam Spence

Jamal Sutherland was a 31-year-old Black man, not an animal, not a slave. He died in January in Charleston County’s jail after authorities mauled him, spewed pepper spray and jolted him with six to eight electric shocks. Their treatment of this man who struggled with mental illness was as horrifying as some enslaved Africans got 200 years ago on plantations. 

It was violent. It was wrong. Video recordings released last week of the incident are nothing short of appalling, traumatizing and disgusting. For anyone in authority to justify what happened to Jamal Sutherland by saying he had to be at a bond hearing is unimaginable. That’s not an acceptable excuse. A hearing could have been postponed. 

Reactions to this new Charleston tragedy are sad, but understandable: Outrage that the January loss could happen after so many other needless deaths. Shock that another man couldn’t breathe because of overzealous treatment by law enforcement officials. Calls for calm by civic and religious leaders who hope the event doesn’t light the fire of unrest. Despite the surge of mixed reactions, it’s crystal clear that change must come to how law enforcement officials protect and serve. Change must come now.

“Our thoughts and prayers must be accompanied by action,” said state Sen. Mia McLeod, D-Columbia. “Jamal Sutherland should be alive today, but our criminal justice system failed him. Our mental health system failed him. Our apathy and inaction failed him.” U.S. Rep. Nancy Mace, R-S.C., tweeted similar sentiments, saying she was heartbroken, angry and confused. “Our community is feeling tremendous pain. I just do not understand how this could happen — again … He was alone in a jail cell. He was not a threat to anyone in that moment.”

Local and state leaders need to do more than just beef up the so-called “strong arm” of the law.  They need to saturate mental health and social services agencies with funding to have more resources for patients and better training for law enforcement officials.

“To make our communities (and law enforcement) safer and reduce the likelihood of harmful police/community interactions, legislators must stop turning police into society’s ‘solution’ for substance use, misbehaving children at school, unhoused people and people experiencing mental illness, to name just a few,” ACLU of South Carolina executive director Frank Knaack recently wrote.

More flexibility needs to be built into the system of how Charleston County and jails across the state deal with prisoners. Fundamental rewriting of processes and alterations to institutional behavior at detention centers need to happen now. Our community cannot wait for months of studies, investigations, probes and press conferences. Anything less than immediate, transparent change is totally unacceptable. Fix the problem so it doesn’t happen again. Hold accountable the culpable. Treat people better by truly protecting and serving all.

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