An awful story in Georgia about a fatal 2010 police shooting as investigated by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News, illustrates many of the structural and systemic problems in policing and police discipline, not just in Georgia but around the country.
35-year-old Caroline Small took police on a low-speed chase that ended with her Buick Century in a ditch on its rims. The two cops who followed her shot her, claiming they feared for her life because she could drive the car, which was without tires now, down the narrow path between her and them . After shooting her in the head, the cops are caught on their cameras talking about their marksmanship. A subsequent investigation of the incident cleared them of wrongdoing but the investigation by the Journal-Constitution found a number of problems:
An Atlanta Journal-Constitution/Channel 2 Action News investigation of the case found that:
• Glynn County police officers interfered with the GBI's investigation from the start, seeking to protect the officers.
• The department tampered with the crime scene and created misleading evidence that was shown to the grand jury.
• The local district attorney shared the state's evidence with the officers nearly two months before the grand jury convened and cut an unusual deal with them just before it met.
Both cops remain employed as police officers in Georgia and were never disciplined. Video shows them waving off a former EMT who witnessed the shooting and was trying to offer first aid. Last year a federal judge threw out a wrongful death suit by the family because, she said, the cops said they felt Small was a threat and so killed her lawfully. Small's interaction with cops began when someone saw her sitting in her car in a parking lot and called police about suspected drug use.
The factors that contributed to the "nothing to see here" approach in Georgia are not unique to that state. Police shootings are universally investigated by someone substantively connected to law enforcement—be it the police department's own internal affairs department, state investigators, or outside prosecutors. Police shootings are generally protected by law not only if a reasonable threat existed, but if the cop involved perceived a threat. The system of law enforcement privileges—things like treating disciplinary files as private personnel records and employment as a police officer as a public service privilege—meanwhile, ensures obfuscation can prevent transparency and accountability.
In the last year, incidents of police brutality have received more and more attention, but the burgeoning police reform movement still focuses on the issue on a case-by-case basis. It draws more attention to individual cases of brutality and the ancillary issue of racist cops rather than the systemic problem of police brutality. Those systemic problems are created by a set of privileges extended to police officers and law enforcement by the government that can be revoked by them as well. The prosecution of the six cops accused of killing Freddie Gray, for example, may feel like a victory to protestors, but every protection those cops enjoyed, including waiting 10 days to give an official statement and remaining on the city payroll with termination proceedings impossible until a conviction is secured, other cops will continue to enjoy. The lucrative system can remain intact for police officers, prosecutors, and other government officials, and all it cost was the prosecution of six cops.
Read the whole heart-wrenching piece about Caroline Small here.
Via the Twitter feed of Radley Balko.