TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
As we approach the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, and as New Orleans continues to rebuild, the Justice Department is investigating the New Orleans Police Department.
Since February, federal prosecutors have charged 16 current and former New Orleans police officers for offenses ranging for offenses allegedly committed after the levies failed, including shooting, murder and covering up crimes. Five officers have pleaded guilty. The Justice Department is also investigating hate crimes committed after New Orleans flooded.
My guest, journalist A.C. Thompson, broke some of the stories that contributed to the Justice Department's decision to launch investigations. Thompson says what emerged from his work was a disturbing picture of New Orleans in the days after the storm, when the city fractured along racial fault lines as its government collapsed.
Thompson is a reporter for ProPublica, an investigative journalism website. He's been collaborating on the series Law & Disorder with reporters from the New Orleans Times-Picayune and the PBS documentary series "Frontline." He's the correspondent for the "Frontline" edition "Law & Disorder," which will be broadcast August 25th.
A.C. Thompson, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's talk about the case of Henry Glover, since that's one of the cases you've been investigating for ProPublica and for the PBS series "Frontline." Tell us what you know about how he was attacked.
Mr. A.C. THOMPSON (Reporter, ProPublica): What we know is that on September 2, 2005, Henry Glover was shot on the west bank of the Mississippi River near a strip mall. And in that strip mall was a police substation.
He ran away after he'd been shot, and his brother and a friend and another man put him into a car and drove him to a school, where a police SWAT team was camped out. And the idea was that they were going to get medical help for Henry Glover.
They thought, look, this is the closest place to go. We know the police are trained in lifesaving. We want to get him help. It's closer than the hospital. Let's take him there.
And so they drove him to the school with the idea that we're going to rescue Henry. He's bleeding, but he's still alive. When they got there, according to the other three men, the police didn't offer any help. What they did was they physically assaulted the three able-bodied men, and they left Henry in the back of the car, and they let him bleed to death.
And eventually the able-bodied men, after allegedly being physically assaulted repeatedly by the police, were turned loose, and the witnesses say that the police drove off with Henry's body.
When I came into investigating the story, what I learned was, from the autopsy report, I went through about 800 autopsy reports from the post-Katrina time period, and I found one that described how Henry Glover was found and what state his body was in.
And what it said was that he had been severely, severely burned, just burned to almost nothing. And I tracked down a source who knew about this, who had photos of Henry Glover's body.
It was in the car that his friends had tried to rescue him in. It was left on the banks of the Mississippi River, just a short distance from a police station, and in the car, looking at the photos, you could see all of this, all the stuff described in the autopsy report.
You could see a burnt skull. You could see pieces of big bones. You could see ashes. And that was Henry Glover. He was delivered to the morgue in five body bags, and nobody knew what happened to him.
His cause of death was left unclassified, which means we're not even going to rule this undetermined. We're just not even going to fill in the blank. That's what the coroner did, just left it blank. And nobody did anything about it.
GROSS: How did you first get on this story of Henry Glover?
Mr. THOMPSON: You know, the way I came into reporting this story is that I came across a statement by a guy named William Tanner(ph), who said this whole crazy story - and he made this statement to a police accountability group in New Orleans - and he had this crazy tale, and it went something like: Shortly after the storm, I encountered a man who'd been shot. I tried to rescue him. I drove him to a school, a public elementary school where the police were camped out, but the police didn't help him. I thought they'd help him, but instead the police physically attacked me, and they physically attacked the other people with me. They let Henry bleed to death, and then they took off with my car, which I'd tried to rescue the man in, and they burnt up the car, and they burnt up Henry Glover's body, and they dumped it on the banks of the river.
So I'm reading this, and I'm thinking, wow, this is really bizarre. This is a really weird thing. And when you're an investigative reporter, you get kooky people who come and tell you kooky stories, and they're, you know, they're delusional. And I thought this might be the case.
But as I continued to work on reporting about the aftermath of Katrina, I came across the autopsy report for Henry Glover, the man described in this account, and he in fact had been burnt up.
And I thought, oh wow, this crazy tale that I had just read in this statement might actually be true. There might be something to it, because here was a guy who was very, very seriously burnt up during a flood, which looks pretty suspicious.
And so I called around, and I finally tracked down the Glover family, and I spoke to Henry's mom. And she said yes, I'd like to talk to you about my son. Can you come to our apartment tomorrow?
And I went over there, and there were about 20 people in it, this small place, and she said: This is all of Henry's family, and this is 2008. He died in 2005. We still have no clue what happened to him. Do you know what happened to him?
And everyone was clamoring for information. All of his family members needed to know what happened to Henry. All they knew was that the last time they'd seen him, he'd been in police custody, and his remains had been found burnt up on the banks of the Mississippi. They knew nothing.
And his brother, who'd helped to try to rescue him, was there. The man who had made the statement about trying to rescue him was there as well, William, and they all told me the same story, and it was just this macabre, disturbing mystery.
GROSS: What did you learn about how and why Henry was shot in the first place?
Mr. THOMPSON: Well, you know, at first I had no clue why he was shot. I didn't know at all. And there were different theories, you know. One person thought, well, perhaps it was a police officer because there was a police substation in the strip mall right near where he was shot. Other people thought it was a shopkeeper who might have thought that Henry was trying to steal something from the strip mall. Other people thought it might have been just a random act of violence.
Nobody knew. Nobody that I was talking to early on had a clue. And over time what came out was that there had indeed been a police officer at that strip mall who had fired a shot at Henry Glover. And what became more and more clear and a lot of this was uncovered by my friends at the New Orleans Times-Picayune was that a police officer had fired a shot from his rifle. He in all likelihood had shot and hit Henry Glover.
Henry's companions had spirited him away from that section, that area, without really knowing that he'd been shot by the police, and according to the federal indictments, that there was pretty quickly a cover-up that went into effect where officers were basically trying to hide the fact that this shooting had occurred.
GROSS: When you say a cover-up, what was the shape of that cover-up?
Mr. THOMPSON: Well, what you can divine from talking to sources and looking at the federal indictments is that the federal government does not believe that the incident report that was written up in the wake of the shooting describing it is an accurate and truthful document. That's clear from what the federal government is alleging in their indictment, in court papers.
Our reporting that I've done with the New Orleans Times-Picayune and PBS "Frontline" has showed the same thing. The reporters at the Picayune really figured that out early on, that this report that was written by the police department about the shooting did not look to be a truthful, accurate reflection of what happened.
You know, further, the federal government is saying that the officers involved in this mess lied to federal investigators about what happened.
GROSS: What is one of the biggest obstacles you've run into as a result of those cover-ups?
Mr. THOMPSON: You know, with the Henry Glover matter, the police department at first told me they knew nothing about it. They knew nothing about it. There was no information about it.
And when you look at that case, Henry Glover's mother went to the police department and she said: My son, I believe he was shot. I don't know where he is. I don't know if he's alive or dead. I think he's probably dead. Can you figure out what happened?
And what we now know is that the police department, instead of following up on her worry and on this, you know, terrible story that she's come and told them, that they either did nothing or they actively made sure that that report didn't go anywhere and nobody followed up. And that's the kind of stuff that you encounter in New Orleans.
GROSS: You've read 800 autopsy reports as part of your research. Was it hard to get access to those reports?
Mr. THOMPSON: When I started doing this reporting, the Nation Institute was supporting it and bankrolling it, and they hired an attorney to sue the coroner's office to make those documents available to us. They're public record in the state of Louisiana, and they were supposed to be available to us, but the coroner's office wouldn't do it.
So we had to go to court. We spent tens of thousands of dollars. The Nation Institute poured a ton of money into it, and it was only after litigation and winning in court that we finally got to review those documents.
GROSS: Why was it necessary to sue?
Mr. THOMPSON: You know, when I first called down and I spoke to the staff at the coroner's office, I said, you know, look, I'm only interested in people who were shot or otherwise died violently after the storm.
And the coroner's office staffer said, well, you know, I don't know what we can do for you. And I said, well, would it be easier if I made a formal public records request? And the person on the other end of the phone said, well, sure, you know, you can do that, but we don't follow the law anyway.
GROSS: Well, what does that mean?
Mr. THOMPSON: That means that they weren't going to turn over documents that they legally had an obligation to turn over, even if I made the formal request under the law for them.
GROSS: Is there a possibility that the leadership in the city, in their attempts to maintain a lawful atmosphere and to prevent anarchy from breaking out, gave orders that were interpreted too harshly by some cops who were maybe too ready to pull the trigger when they thought somebody was a looter?
Mr. THOMPSON: That is an ongoing question. That is something that we are still really trying to figure out. What we have been told by many people is that officers were instructed by higher-ups in the department to quote-unquote "take the city back," to go after looters with extreme prejudice, to use force in contexts that wouldn't normally be lawful, that normally if you are going to use deadly force, you need to be threatened with deadly force yourself as a police officer. You can't just shoot somebody willy-nilly who's stealing something. And it's been alleged to us that that's what was going on at that time period.
Now, other people, other officers, higher-ups in the department, say that's definitely not true, that that did not happen. And so for us, that's something that we're still trying to wrestle with, is why did these shootings occur and what happened in the chain of command that might have triggered them.
Eleven people were shot in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. And when you look at those shootings, there are a lot of disturbing similarities that make you wonder both about the mindset of officers at that time and the possibility that orders were given that gave officers the belief that they could use deadly force in ways that they wouldn't normally use it in peacetime, in a non-catastrophe situation.
As well, the mayor said we have martial law in effect right now, which might have affected police officers and made them think oh, the normal rules of engagement have changed.
The governor said: I'm sending in all these military troops, and they're locked and loaded, and they're going to shoot people if they have to. And so there may well have been a mindset with officers at that time that, hey, the normal rules are out the window. You do what you got to do.
GROSS: Does it seem to you like Eric Holder, the head of the Justice Department, is making the New Orleans Police Department, investigating the New Orleans Police Department and cleaning it up, priorities?
Mr. THOMPSON: It's clear that investigating the New Orleans Police Department and reforming the New Orleans Police Department is a major priority for the Justice Department. There are at least eight ongoing civil rights probes of the police department in New Orleans.
I can't think of any other police department in the United States of America that is under that kind of federal scrutiny.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is A.C. Thompson. He's an investigative reporter for ProPublica and a correspondent for the PBS series "Frontline." He has been investigating hate crimes and shootings by civilians and by police in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is A.C. Thompson. He's an investigative reporter for ProPublica and a correspondent for the PBS series "Frontline." He has been investigating hate crimes and shootings by civilians and by police in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
Now, we talked a little bit about one of the cases in which police were alleged to have shot and then burned the body of and then covered up what happened to an African-American man after Hurricane Katrina.
Let's look at one of the civilian, a civilian set of crimes committed, allegedly committed, in the wake of Katrina. And I'm thinking here of a white militia group that was formed as the floods were building up and people were fleeing. Would you just, like, describe the neighborhood this happened in?
Mr. THOMPSON: Algiers Point sits on the west bank of the Mississippi River. So it's cut off from the main part of New Orleans that you think about: The French Quarter, the central business district and Canal Street, the heart of New Orleans.
It's a little bit isolated from the rest of the city, and it's this beautiful old neighborhood of well-maintained houses right on the river, and it's predominately white, and it is linked to the city by a ferry terminal.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, that ferry terminal turned into an evacuation center set up by the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard had an operation there, and they were bringing all kinds of people into that ferry terminal by land, by boat, and then they were taking them out of the city on buses, getting them out of the city.
And in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when I talked to people about what happened in that area, it was clear that for some of the white folks who lived in that area, they were unhappy about this influx of new people to their neighborhood, their small neighborhood, and that they had set up barricades in the street.
They had taken fallen trees and rubbish and all kinds of stuff and barricaded the streets so that people couldn't get in and out of their neighborhood very easily, and they had mounted armed patrols. They were riding around the streets and walking around the streets with assault rifles and shotguns and handguns, and this was dry land.
This neighborhood didn't flood. So this was where people who were drowning were coming to. And what the federal government says is that there was a plan to use force and threats of force to keep African-Americans off the streets of this neighborhood for about two weeks in the aftermath of that storm.
What people in that neighborhood will tell you, who I've interviewed, they'll say it wasn't about race, it was just about keeping outsiders and criminals and thieves out of our neighborhood. The federal government says otherwise, and people who got caught up in this, African-American people, will tell you that they think it was all about race.
GROSS: Can you give us an overview of the crimes that happened that were allegedly tied to this white militia in Algiers Point?
Mr. THOMPSON: The federal government indicted a guy named Roland Bourgeois for allegedly opening fire with his shotgun on three African-American men and being part of this group of people who were conspiring to keep African-Americans off the streets.
My reporting suggests that there were more shootings than that, there were more incidents of threats and intimidation than that, but the total number is still unknown.
What we know is that Donnell Herrington, one of the three men that Roland Bourgeois is accused of shooting, very nearly died. He was shot in the throat.
GROSS: You're the person who identified the alleged shooter. How did you do that?
Mr. THOMPSON: I first started reporting on this in 2008. The first story came out about this group and about these alleged hate crimes, and after that I got a tip, and the tip was there was a woman who was around at that time period, she might talk to you, she thinks she saw something.
And I contacted this person, and she gave me information that made me think that she might know who shot Donnell Herrington, and then she disappeared. She quit taking my calls, and she quit returning my emails.
So I wound up driving about eight hours from New Orleans to her house and showing up at her house, which is in another Southern state that I won't disclose, and she said, you know, I thought you would show up at some time; some in and I'll tell you what happened and you can put it on film for PBS "Frontline."
And she told me: My neighbor, a guy named Roland, I saw him jumping around, threatening to kill people, apparently using his shotgun, and I believe that he shot somebody, and it might be this guy Donnell Herrington.
GROSS: My guest, A.C. Thompson, will be back in the second half of the show. He's a reporter for ProPublica, the investigative journalism website. He's also the correspondent for the PBS "Frontline" edition "Law & Disorder," which will be broadcast August 25th. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
(Soundbite of music)
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. Im Terry Gross, back with journalist A.C. Thompson, a reporter for the investigative journalism website ProPublica. Weve been talking about his investigations into crimes allegedly committed by members of the New Orleans Police Department after the levees broke five years ago. Thompson has also been investigating shootings allegedly committed by vigilantes from the white neighborhood, Algiers Point, who are accused of trying to keep out African-Americans trying to get to dry ground.
Roland Bourgeois of Algiers Point has been charged with shooting Donnell Herrington. Bourgeois was first identified in one of Thompsons stories. Thompson got the tip from one of Bourgeois neighbors. But then Thompson had to do a lot of research to back up her claim.
Mr. THOMPSON: We spent the next year trying to figure this out and piecing the whole thing together. It took a year to do a 2,000-word story and a couple short videos. And what we ended up doing was really reconstructing those events. We, first of all, figured out that this Roland she was talking about was a guy named Roland Bourgeois. We identified him as the possible shooter. All we had, at first, was the first name.
Mr. THOMPSON: From there, we went to Donnell Herrington and his cousin, who was with him at the time of the shooting, and described the witnesss testimony and her statements. We showed him a photo of Roland Bourgeois and he said that was definitely one of the guys who was there that day; that was definitely one of the men who was there when I was attacked.
We went to Roland Bourgeois mother and we interviewed her. And she said, oh yeah, my son and another man were definitely involved in a shooting. They definitely opened fire on an African-American man and the only reason the federal government is investigating my son is because the guy he shot survived and is talking to the media. So we started thinking that we might have the right guy. But there was a thread that ran through this. There was a clue for us that we followed.
Our first witness said that Roland - she hadn't actually seen the shooting -that shed seen him take off planning to shoot a black man, using racial epithets, and he ran around a corner and she heard a sound...
(Soundbite of mimicking gunfire)
Mr. THOMPSON: ...a gunfire. And that he came back with a bloody blue baseball cap and he was happy about this shooting and that he was celebrating. And his friends, who were also armed, were celebrating.
I went to Donnell and I said hey, what were you wearing that day? And he said oh, I was definitely wearing a baseball cap - probably a Detroit Tigers or a New York Yankees. And then finally, when I spoke to Rolands mother, she said, oh yeah, and he kept the baseball cap from the man that he shot. I told him to get rid of it and he finally got rid of it. And when all those things lined up, we said oh, this probably is exactly the guy we're looking at. And that whole thing about the baseball cap ends up in the federal indictment, that they described the same scene.
GROSS: Why is this incident worth a year of reporting?
Mr. THOMPSON: This was an unsolved crime. This was somebody who had very nearly been killed. Donnell Herrington was shot in the throat; he was shot in the back, the arms, the torso. He had seven pieces of buckshot in his throat. His internal jugular vein was shredded. He was going to bleed to death if he hadn't been rescued. And he was luckily rescued, taken to the hospital and survived. His surgeon told me he was close to death.
I thought that it was very disturbing to me, that a man fleeing a catastrophe, trying to get to an evacuation center, trying to get out of the stricken city, could allegedly be targeted for death because of his race. And that was what really made me feel that I needed to figure out what happened.
GROSS: So what does the Justice Department have to say about this case?
Mr. THOMPSON: The Justice Department is not really talking beyond bringing down charges on Roland Bourgeois. And in those charges, it portrays this incident as a racially motivated attack and as part of a broader conspiracy, a broader pattern of African-Americans being targeted in that area.
GROSS: So now that youve been publishing about these shootings and hate crimes, are more people coming forward to speak with you?
Mr. THOMPSON: You know, it took a long time to get people to talk about a lot of these things. And what I find in New Orleans thats different than other places is people are very, very scared to talk about a lot of these things; and that it takes a long, long time to convince them to talk. Its not like other places. In a lot of other places, people are very happy to or they're not happy, but they're very willing to discuss these kind of incidents. And in New Orleans there is a culture of fear that pervades, that keeps people from wanting to go public with some of these things.
GROSS: What do you attribute that to?
Mr. THOMPSON: I think that in New Orleans, especially where you have a police department that has been embroiled in scandals for the last 30 years, that folks are scared to speak out about that police department, oftentimes, and thats what they have told us that, you know, thats whats come through in our reporting.
I have been writing about criminal justice and reporting on the criminal justice system for more than a decade. And that was what was different about New Orleans is, you know, with the alleged hate crimes I had all these people describing shootings and attacks and racial threats to me. And the people who were describing them were the people who were the victims of these attacks and threats and harassment, as well as the people who were part of this group doing it. And the police had never spoken to any of these folks. They'd never spoken to the alleged victims or the alleged perpetrators or this broader group of militia types. And that was what was different about New Orleans, is that there didnt seem to be any interest from local law enforcement into finding out what happened to people like Donnell Herrington who was shot in the throat.
GROSS: A.C. Thompson is a reporter for ProPublica, the investigative journalism website. He is also the correspondent for the PBS Frontline edition, "Law and Disorder," which will be broadcast August 25th. You can find links to his articles on our website, freshair.npr.org.
Coming up, pianist Fred Hersch describes emerging from a two-month coma and starting to play again.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.