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Leonard Pitts Jr.: Under unchecked power, no one is safe

Leonard Pitts Jr.

They did not have to die.

That’s the bitter truth. Katie Sasser and her friend John Hall would likely still be alive if cops and prosecutors in Glynn County, Georgia, had done their jobs. But they were more interested in protecting one of their own. So Sasser and Hall were shot to death in June by Sasser’s estranged husband, Robert C. Sasser. He then killed himself.

Consider it the grim coda to a tale told in this space in 2016, about the most troubling police shooting you’ve never heard of. It began in June of 2010 when Caroline Small, a troubled 35-year-old woman, led police on a low-speed chase after being spotted using drugs.

The dashcam video shows that they caught her, had her hemmed in on all sides with four flat tires. Small rocked the car back and forth a couple times, but it was useless. She had nowhere to go. And for no good reason whatsoever, then-Sgt. Sasser and Officer Todd Simpson shot her, eight rounds peppering her windshield. As she lay dying, they bragged about their marksmanship.

“I hit her right in the face … right on the bridge of the nose,” said Sasser.

Simpson waved off a former EMT who approached the car. “She’s dead. I shot her in the head. Her head exploded.” Small died seven days later.

But that wasn’t the worst. A 2015 investigation by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and WSB-TV, a local ABC affiliate, found that police tampered with the crime scene, manufactured misleading evidence and interfered with a supposedly “independent” investigation, aided and abetted by District Attorney Jackie Johnson, who deferred to and helped the defense at every step.

As a result, Sasser and Simpson (who died of brain cancer in 2016) were cleared of wrongdoing. A civil suit was dismissed.

“I’ve lost many nights of sleep over it,” David Peterson, a former prosecutor in Johnson’s office, told the AJC. “This was a murder, and it was covered up. It shouldn’t have happened. It was wrong.”

As noted, unless you live in the region, you’ve probably never heard of this case. That’s because Small was white. As such, she does not fit comfortably into our national debate on police brutality, dominated as it has been by African Americans like Philando Castile, Tamir Rice and Freddie Gray.

But as I pointed out two years ago, “Although African Americans bear the brunt of our refusal to demand accountability for police misbehavior, unchecked power ultimately has no racial loyalties.”

The British historian Lord Acton famously put it like this: “Power tends to corrupt. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Sasser got away with murder because of that corrupted power, because it closed ranks and looked the other way. Heck, he even got a promotion. Apparently, no one thought to ask whether two men who could callously execute a woman who posed no threat were fit to be police officers. Apparently, no one wondered if maybe they should be in prison.

In May, Sasser was arrested for domestic violence. A few days later, he tried to assault fellow officers after a nine-hour standoff during which he was suicidal. Last month, he murdered Katie Sasser and John Hall.

And maybe none of it would have happened had anyone done right by Small, had they not placed law enforcers above the law itself. May every cop and prosecutor wrestle with the lessons of that failure. May every individual who thinks police brutality is something black people made up realize that under unchecked power, no one is safe.

And may every person who failed Caroline Small meet her in their dreams.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald.