Alleged Police Misconduct Riles Oakland, New Orleans Residents

Two recent high-profile shootings involving white police officers and African-American victims are back in the news. In New Orleans, a federal trial is underway for five current and former NOPD officers charged with the shooting death of Henry Glover in 2005. And in Oakland a police officer received a two-year sentence for killing unarmed Oscar Grant II in 2009. Host Michel Martin gets the latest news and analysis on both of these cases from Oakland Tribune reporter Angela Woodall, Pro Publica journalist A.C. Thompson, and Harvard University Law Professor Charles Ogletree.

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MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News.

On the program today, we have a couple of stories that speak to this country's ongoing racial divide in ways that might seem surprising to many people who might be asking: Why is race a part of the conversation? That's one of the things we are going to talk about. Later in the program, we'll discuss the Food and Drug Administration's proposed ban on menthol cigarettes. Menthol is the only flavor additive still permitted, and menthol cigarettes happen to be the product that is overwhelmingly preferred by African-American smokers. So now some African-Americans see the proposed ban as discriminatory, and others say it's just common sense. We'll hear from both sides in just a few minutes.

But, first, we wanted to take a look at an issue that is often racially charged and explosive. It's the issue of police conduct. Right now, there are two separate cases making their way through the courts that involve white police officers using deadly force on black men. And both of these cases are raising painful issues in their respective communities.

In New Orleans, opening statements begin today in the trial of five former and current New Orleans police officers in the 2005 shooting death of Henry Glover. The alleged incident took place in the chaotic days following Hurricane Katrina. The officers involved are accused of shooting Glover for no apparent reason, denying him medical assistance and then burning his body to cover it up.

Meanwhile, in Oakland, California, protests continue over a two-year sentence handed down just last week. In that case, a former police officer was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the shooting death of an unarmed Oscar Grant on a crowded train station platform on New Year's Day in 2009.

In a few minutes, we're going to try to put these cases into context with Charles Ogletree. He's founder of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard University. He's thought and written a very great deal about race and criminal justice.

For now, though, we're going to start with the journalists covering these two cases. Angela Woodall is a reporter for the Oakland Tribune newspaper, and A.C. Thompson is a reporter with the investigative reporting group called ProPublica. I welcome you both, and I thank you both so much for joining us.

THOMPSON: Thanks for having me on.

ANGELA WOODALL: Thank you. Glad to be here.

MARTIN: So, Angela, let's start with you, because we've been following the Oscar Grant story on this program. But for those who don't know, if you would just recount, as briefly as you can, the facts of the case.

WOODALL: Well, Oscar Grant was unarmed the night that he was on a BART - he was on the Fruitvale BART station platform.

MARTIN: That's a rapid transit train station.

WOODALL: That's right. It's the version - for those who are in Washington, D.C., it's the equivalent of the Metro. And on New Year's Eve, it's often used. It's heavily used. And so he was on the platform with a group of friends. An altercation between several BART police officers ensued and led to him and several others being handcuffed. And eventually, Oscar Grant was shot in the back by Johannes Mehserle.

MARTIN: And what was his defense? I mean, this whole - that whole episode was captured on a cell phone video, widely distributed. Many, many people saw it, obviously, at the time, and subsequently, because of the cell phone video. What was the officer's defense?

WOODALL: Well, Johannes Mehserle argued that he meant to use his taser on Oscar Grant. Oscar Grant was, again, on his stomach. His back was facing Johannes Mehserle. He meant to take his taser and apply it to Oscar Grant. Instead, he drew his gun, and he's argued that it was a mistake.

MARTIN: And was this a jury trial or a bench trial involving just a judge?

WOODALL: This was a jury trial.

MARTIN: And it was held in Los Angeles because?

WOODALL: It was held in Los Angeles because I think that they felt that in the - in Alameda County, where Oakland is located, that Johannes Mehserle would not have a fair trial, essentially.

MARTIN: And this case was too widely publicized, and too many people in the potential jury pool would know about it. So what's been the reaction since, as we said, this two-year sentence for involuntary manslaughter has been handed down - apparently with credit for time served. How has Oakland reacted to this?

WOODALL: Oakland has reacted with a lot of concern, because two years, it was felt, was not enough, especially because there will be time served, and Johannes Mehserle may - he may serve a total of seven months. He probably won't see the inside of a prison, actually. So he will - people are very upset. And especially Friday, there was a rally to protest the sentencing, to continue the discussion here about what people are saying about police brutality, about people being shot.

In Oakland, there's been about a dozen people shot by police in the last two or three years, and all of them have been people of color - most of them men. I believe more Latinos than African-Americans, if I'm not mistaken. And just yesterday, actually, we were writing at the Oakland Tribune this story about a man who was unarmed, being shot by police several times, which people were very, very upset. And they felt like the sentence gave the police free reign to shoot black and brown men. That's how people put it.

MARTIN: And I want to hear a little bit more about the reaction. But first, I'm going to bring A.C. Thompson into the conversation. You've done some reporting both on the BART shooting in Oakland and the New Orleans case. You actually broke the New Orleans in late 2008. If you would, just briefly as you can, tell us the facts of that case.

THOMPSON: It's a little bit complicated, so let me try to lay it for you. In the days after the storm, a man named Henry Glover was allegedly shot by a New Orleans police office while he was allegedly taking some stolen goods from a strip mall, like pots and pans and candles and stuff. He was picked up by his brother and another group of men who were trying to rescue him. He wasn't killed. He was wounded.

And they didn't realize that he'd been shot by a police officer. And so they took him as fast as they could to the closest place that they thought that Henry could get medical aid, and that was a police encampment at a school where the SWAT team was. And they figured that the police officers could give him medical attention. And the men who rescued him told me, they said, look, we took him there because we were in New Orleans and the county line, the parish line was barricaded. And the next parish over where the hospital was, we didn't think we'd be able to get in there, which is a predominantly white community.

So they went to go to the police, not knowing that he'd been shot by a police officer. And what the men say then happened was that they were physically attacked, that Henry Glover was left to bleed to death, and that he didn't get any medical aid and he bled to death in the back of the car.

The federal government has brought criminal charges against five current and former officers, saying, yes, this is how it went down. The man was shot. He was left for dead. His companions were beaten. His body was burnt up and left on a levy behind the police station. And two other officers helped to try to cover this up and wrote false police reports.

MARTIN: How did it come to light that he was, in fact, shot by a police officer? Because at the time, they didn't know, that people who were giving him aid, his brother and the other gentleman didn't know. How did this come to light?

THOMPSON: You know, it spilled out since 2008, thanks largely to really great reporting by my friends at the Times-Picayune that started figuring this out and got documents. But when Henry's mother went to the police and said, you know, I think he died while in police custody, you know, you need to help me figure out. It appears that they did nothing, that they just basically buried the police report. And they took a missing person's report rather than a homicide report, and just basically buried it. It was really the investigative work of journalists over time and the investigation of the federal government that made this spill out.

MARTIN: If you've just joined us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. And we're talking about two racially charged cases involving police - allegations of police misconduct in two different parts of the country. We're talking about the case in Oakland involving a man who was shot while unarmed on New Year's Day in 2009. And we're also talking about a case that's just going to trial in New Orleans about five police officers who were accused of shooting a man who was also unarmed and allowing him to bleed to death.

And we're talking to the two journalists who've been covering these stories. Now I think is a good time to bring in Charles Ogletree, Harvard law professor. He's the founder of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice.

Thank you so much for joining us, as well.

CHARLES OGLETREE: Hello, Michel. Great to be with you.

MARTIN: We need to take a short break in just a minute, but Professor Ogletree, I wanted to bring you into this conversation because on the one hand, the cases are different and the facts are distinct. On the other hand, this is something that we've seen a lot before, the reaction of communities. And I'm just - I'm interested to know, does this fit into a part of a pattern? Or are these cases all distinct? And I do want to mention in each case there involved pressure, you know, involved chaotic circumstances and so forth. Is that a pattern that you see?

OGLETREE: It is a pattern and we see it over and over again, Michel, and it's across the country. It's not a, what some would say, a Southern problem, it's a national problem. And we all have to depend on the police. They come when we call. They protect us. They serve us. But these cases just reveal - can you imagine people getting together and covering up a murder committed by police? Can you imagine a police officer saying, I thought it was a Taser and even elementary geometry would tell you there's a difference between the weight of a service pistol and a taser, and the jury believing that.

And it just frustrates the community to see this happening to young, black men. And not just black men, their sons, their fathers. And we keep sort of putting them in a box as if they're just a number, statistic. But these are people who lost their lives in their prime. And who should not die, who should not have been killed. And I think it's time for us to, in both of these cases, to look for a more of a federal implication. Not only the investigation like we see in New Orleans, but federal involvement to deal with these issues of police acting in ways that don't lead to any prosecution.

MARTIN: But let me press you on this question, and we only have about two minutes left in this segment, and we will come back to you, of course, after the break, as well as to the journalists. But why do you believe that race is a factor here? I mean obviously there are juries who believe that, in fact, the pressure of the circumstances are really the issue here.

OGLETREE: Well, the one thing the police are trained to do is to - if you're going to use a gun, use it with deadly force and not to injure or wound somebody. But the question is when do you do that? And in both of these cases, as the reporting shows, why are you going to pull a gun and fire it on someone that's on the ground at the BART station? Why are you going to shoot at somebody, leaving that area during the riot, as opposed to - they're leaving. They're not staying there. They're not threatening the officer.

In neither of these cases, in my view, was the officer under a serious personal threat. And that again is to make us wonder why are these things happening? The reporters, I think, have done an excellent job in making sure that all the information comes out, even in the Grant case about the jury's decision not to invoke the weapons penalty, which would've made Grant subject to a larger sentence. But all this is good reporting, but it's also a sad reminder that race still matters.

MARTIN: And, Angela, can - just briefly before we take our break, was the jury in Los Angeles racially diverse?

WOODALL: No, it was an all-white jury. And from what I'm hearing, African- Americans were excluded. Obviously they were excluded from the jury but they were excluded when they had had interactions with police before.

MARTIN: An all-white jury in Los Angeles. Interesting. And we need to take a short break. But when we come back, we're going to continue this conversation about these two cases involving allegations of police misconduct in Oakland and in New Orleans. And we're speaking with the reporters A.C. Thompson and Angela Woodall, who have been covering these cases. We're also speaking with Harvard Professor Charles Ogletree, who is the founder of the Charles Hamilton Institute on Race and Justice at Harvard University.

Please stay with us. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

In a few minutes, we will hear from versatile jazz pianist and composer Jason Moran. It is the latest in our series of conversation with 2010 MacArthur winners. That's commonly known as the genius grant. We'll hear about what makes his work distinctive and what he plans to do with the grant. That is coming up later in the program.

But first, we're going to continue our conversation about two high profile cases involving allegations of police misconduct and excessive force in which African-American men died. One court case in New Orleans opened today in which five current and former New Orleans police officers are accused of shooting and then burning the body of Henry Glover in the chaos of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

We're also talking about the shooting of Oscar Grant, an unarmed man killed on a crowded train platform in Oakland on New Year's Day in 2009. The officer in that case just last week received a two-year sentence for involuntary manslaughter. We're speaking with Angela Woodall, a reporter for the Oakland Tribune and A.C. Thompson, a reporter with ProPublica - that's an investigative reporting group - and Harvard Law Professor Charles Ogletree.

A.C. Thompson, talk to me a little bit about the case and how this case is being thought about in New Orleans, which has gone through so much. Do people feel that race is involved here?

THOMPSON: Yeah, they definitely feel like race is a factor here. And one thing to lay out for you is that 20 current and former police officers have been indicted in New Orleans in the last year. So this is one of many cases that have really shaken people's faith in the police department there.

In a lot of the cases, you had African-American officers opening fire and shooting or abusing African-American citizens. This case is a little bit different because we have all-white officers allegedly killing and abusing African-Americans.

I think that when we've been to community meetings down there and spoken to people, there is definitely a sense that there's a racial component here. And when I spoke to and interviewed the men who were there, the victims in this case who survived, they all felt explicitly that this was racial and that there were racial terms thrown around while they were being abused and while Henry Glover was dying.

MARTIN: And why - but you mentioned that there are other cases involving African-American officers who were also accused of misconduct. And what do people think is the dynamic at work in those cases?

THOMPSON: You know, I think that what you're seeing is a more complex narrative about race and policing in the United States. And that you used to almost overwhelmingly see cases where you had white officers allegedly abusing or killing African-Americans and other people of color.

In the last 20 years I think what you see is more cases where you have officers of color who are allegedly abusing or killing people of color. And that has changed. You look at the Rampart scandal in L.A. You look at the Riders scandal in Oakland. You look at the Sean Bell shooting in New York and these cases in New Orleans - a lot of them. And you start seeing an emerging new dynamic. The victims still tend to be African-Americans and Latinos. But oftentimes the officers involved are also people of color.

MARTIN: And Angela, to that point, this case in Oakland, which is obviously very painful, there were protests over the weekend. There were a large number of arrests. They were largely peaceful protests, I understand, but then they did at some point - there were confrontations, which led to arrests. And earlier, just in the immediate aftermath of a shooting there were, you know, street demonstrations that became very, you know, disturbing.

So, I'd like to ask, are officials there talking about ways to try to bridge this divide between law enforcement and the community who feel threatened by law enforcement? And presumably it works both ways. What's being talked about in the aftermath of this case?

WOODALL: I think the same thing is being talked about that was before, which is the police reaching out to faith-based community organizations, the faith-based organizations reaching out to police, reaching out to city hall. And they've been working on this issue for many years. And I don't see any progress happening because it's the police that are communicating with the organizations back and forth. They may have good intentions, but the same issue remains, which is the use of force on people.

And for example, with Oscar Grant, I think nothing - this would've never happened if he had been white, whether the officers were white or black, it wouldn't have mattered. He was black and that's what it came down to. And so until that changes, they can talk - city hall and the police and organizations and nonprofits can talk all they want, but there doesn't seem to be any change. And I think that there are other very good organizations here - organizations that promote peace and conflict resolution. They're really doing as much as they can possibly do to reach out to people in the community and educate them or to help them to feel like police are not their enemies.

But, again, when I'm out, I work nights sometimes and I'll be out walking around or going to a crime scene and police will stop African-American men on the street. They will just stop them and they feel like - so these young men feel like they're being profiled. And it just leads from there. It becomes this very uncomfortable interaction between people.

As one police said to me, he said that we've lost the streets. And there's people with guns, drug dealers who don't feel any impunity. They're not scared of the police at all. And if we contact them, if we pull up, they used to just leave. Now they stay and they actually stare us down. So it's a very difficult situation.

MARTIN: Professor Ogletree, I'm going to give you the last word in the minute and a half or so we have left. What - you've been studying this and thinking about this for a very long time. And I'd like to ask, is there - what works? I mean is anything - have you seen anything in the course of your career that would affect this dynamic?

OGLETREE: I have, Michel. You know, I wrote the book about Professor Gates' arrest called "The Presumption of Guilt." And what it reminded us of is that it's not just race, it's class as well. You know, prominent African- American achieved much and after showing two forms of ID, he's arrested at his own home last year. And it just reminds us that we haven't solved that problem.

What works - my wife Pam has a wonderful program at - a service at Roxbury called YPP, Youth to Police Partnership, which means young African-American and Latino men meet with police regularly, figure out what they do, the police respect them. There's an early intervention to make sure that people aren't afraid of each other and in danger.

Second, what every reporter has talked about, it's not about the race when it comes to police. There is a bond. It's about their fear. And we say they on the street. Not everyone on the street's a drug dealer or a gang member or a crack dealer, but they've generalized it. And we need to talk about how to educate the police to understand that not everyone's a threat, and to resolve some of those things.

The third thing is that the community has to take responsibility and get involved early to protect itself and make sure these things don't happen - not the drugs, not the guns, but get involved and prevent some of this. So it's all of our problems, whether we live in gated communities, suburbs, wherever we are, we all are a part of the problem if we don't become part of the solution. I think we should and can become part of the solution to help the police do their job, but also to save lives like Henry Glover and Oscar Grant. Those should not have happened and we can't let more happen on our watch.

MARTIN: Charles Ogletree is a professor of law at Harvard Law School. He's the founder of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice. And the author most recently, as you just heard, of "The Presumption of Guilt," the arrest of Henry Louis Gates. He was with us from the studios at Harvard.

Also with us, Angela Woodall, a reporter with the Oakland Tribune. She was with us from the studios at UC Berkeley in California. And A.C. Thompson is a staff reporter for ProPublica, which describes itself as an independent nonprofit newsroom focused on investigative journalism in the public interest. He first broke the story of Henry Glover back in 2008. He's worked as a correspondent on a documentary on the Glover case called "Law and Disorder" for PBS's "Frontline." And he was with us from New York. Thank you all so much for joining us.

OGLETREE: Thank you.

THOMPSON: Thanks.

WOODALL: Thank you.

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