In 2010, a troubled young South Georgia woman was unarmed and inside her car, pinned by patrol vehicles, when eight bullets pierced her front windshield, killing her.
A police captain told state agents who arrived to investigate, “The only reason we call you in is for public perception,” he said. “We have to protect our officers.”
The case closed with little scrutiny and the officers were cleared of any wrongdoing.
Local police believed they could manipulate the truth and the public would never know. They succeeded until WSB-TV and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution laid bare the hidden story of how justice was subverted in Caroline Small’s case.
The revelations about Small’s killing resulted from our year-long series, Over the Line, the most comprehensive investigation of police shootings in Georgia history.
We uncovered evidence of prosecutorial misconduct, police cover-ups, and a Georgia grand jury process unlike any other- one that invariably guaranteed officers would avoid charges, even when prosecutors believed they had committed crimes.
The series has already prompted state leaders to act.
As a result of our reporting, Georgia legislators passed a new law curtailing the unique grand jury privilege that had previously helped officers avoid criminal charges. The state agency that oversees law enforcement called for improved training procedures and revoked the certification of an officer involved in one of the shootings we investigated. Several questionable cases that had previously been closed and forgotten faced new scrutiny because of our reporting.
Reporters painstakingly acquired more than 500 public records from across the state, reviewing thousands of pages of incident reports, court documents, investigative transcripts, medical examiner reports and death certificates. We conducted more than 100 interviews and analyzed 184 fatal shootings over six years. We put the information in a searchable, online database. For the first time, the public and policymakers have an authoritative accounting of fatal police shootings and can access the details of each case.
We published troubling findings that were unknown in Georgia before our series, including:
• Nearly half the people shot and killed by police were either unarmed or shot in the back.
• More than one-third of fatal shootings involved people shot in their own homes or those of loved ones, many after a call for help.
• More than one-fourth of the people fatally shot had been treated for mental illness or expressed suicidal thoughts.
• Not one officer faced criminal prosecution in any of the fatal shootings.
In a state with a legacy of police violence used to suppress civil rights, no one could say whether black citizens were killed by police more often than whites. We found that, in fact, black citizens in Georgia were twice as likely to be fatally shot, based on population data.
Our series distinguishes itself for exhaustive data work and impact in a conservative state where many of our readers and viewers trust police and didn’t like what we reported. We heard from many of them.
Tenacious reporting also encouraged reluctant officers, prosecutors and grand jurors to break the silence that has kept questionable police shootings in the shadows.
In the Small case, our reporting convinced four ex-prosecutors in the local DA’s office to speak out about how the case was mishandled. Said one: “This was a murder and it was covered up.”
The stories drew national attention to the case and prompted a grassroots campaign to reopen it.
Another series of stories re-examined details of the death of Ariston Waiters, an unarmed black teen shot in the back near Atlanta. He had committed no crime.
The local district attorney reopened the case against the officer based on new evidence we uncovered, and the word of a fellow officer who had never before spoken publicly about his observations from the scene; he believed the shooting was not justified.
The U.S. Justice Department later opened a civil rights investigation, which is still pending.
Our reporting revealed how the secrecy of grand jury hearings can taint justice in police shooting cases. Georgia law previously allowed officers to sit in the grand jury room, hear all the evidence against them and make an unchallenged closing statement, rights not afforded the general public. No other state had such a law for officers.
Reacting to our stories, the director of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation said the special treatment for officers “does not serve the interest of justice.”
One week after our story spotlighted the failures of that law, Georgia's Prosecuting Attorneys Council and a legislator announced plans to try to change it.
The newly-passed law allows accused officers grand jury access only to make their statement, which is now subject to cross examination, then the officer has to leave the room like any other witness.