In Frontline: Law & Disorder, A.C. Thompson literally walks viewers through his investigation the Henry Glover case, from shooting site to the place where a burned out car held his charred remains.
"They hit me. Kicked me in the ribs twice. Hit me with an M-16 rifle upside my face." Will Tanner had come to Habans Elementary School in New Orleans looking for help from the police who were encamped there. It was 2 September 2005, just four days after Katrina.
Even as the police beat him, Tanner recalls for Frontline: Law & Disorder, he was more worried for the man he'd brought with him to the school. Henry Glover had been shot, and he was bleeding in the car outside: "And no one didn’t check on him at all," Tanner says. "Even when his brother told him to check on him." Instead, the police were arresting Glover's brother, Edward King. "The last time I saw my brother is when they took me out of that car and put them handcuffs behind me," says King. "That’s the last time I saw him."
In the documentary, premiering 25 August on PBS, A.C. Thompson reports that after Tanner and King were arrested, someone drove Tanner's 2001 Chevrolet Malibu to Mississippi River levee, just a few hundred feet from NOPD’s 4th District headquarters. Someone set the car on fire, with Glover's body in the backseat. Glover's mother, Edna, filed a missing person report that same day, but never heard back from police.
The Glover case is finally headed to court, thanks largely to dogged investigating by Thompson, a ProPublica reporter working with Frontline and the Time-Picayune. Recounting that work, Law & Disorder begins with a vivid videotape featuring a private detective from Pittsburgh, Istvan Balogh. He and a partner, Mike Orsini, had arrived in New Orleans just after the storm, expecting to help out local law enforcement. Their videotape shows Tanner's burned car ("This car is torched," he says in the 2005 tape) and human bones, including a skull. "I observed what looked like a bullet wound," says Balogh now. "The magnitude of the way it was destroyed. It was telling a story that... I don’t want no one ever to find out what I did."
Thompson says he "came across" that story two years later. In the coroner's report, he notes, "The line where homicide or accident could have been written was blank," suggesting that indeed, information had been repressed, lost, or forgotten: Thompson followed up, as Law & Order recounts, showing interviews with Tanner and King he conducts at the strip mall where Glover, 31 years old, was shot, as well as Frontline interviews. As they recall the specific incident, Thompson finds a context of chaos in storm's aftermath. In particular, he cites fast-circulating rumors about looters, rapists, and civilian snipers. "Stories now known to be untrue," intones Frontline's narrator, "were told by the highest ranking NOPD Officers," including Chief Eddie Compass ("I shouldn't have basically given any credibility about repeating what was told to me. If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn't") and Mayor Nagin, who declined to be interviewed for the show but is seen here telling Oprah about violence in the Superdome.
Thompson also looks at the apparent consequence of the rumors, a "shoot to kill" order that circulated through the police force. Just how this order became known -- or who issued it to begin with -- remains foggy. In an interview with Frontline, former governor Kathleen Blanco asserts, "I never declared martial law. I know that it’s not legal to do that." Still, it appears -- based on testimonies by officers and a cell phone video of Captain James Scott -- that the word got out among officers that martial law had been declared.
Though Nagin tells a radio reporter at the time that he's "called for" it, the show notes, "In fact, martial law was never declared in New Orleans." Still, Nancy Grace's voice reverberates over footage of flooded and chaotic streets, "Tonight, in a rare move, practically unheard of in the United States…. Martial law declared." Based on Captain Scott's words, some police believed they had the "authority to shoot looters." (Scott, according to the Times-Picayune, doesn't "recall the incident.")
And yet, the possible meanings and reach of his words provide a context for at least five "violent encounters between citizens and officers of New Orleans Police Department in the aftermath of Katrina." These include the beating of two handcuffed men and a reporter on Religious Street on 1 September, the notorious Danziger Bridge incident, during which police fired on a group of citizens on 4 September, injuring four and killing two (40-year-old Ronald Madison, shot six times, and 17-year-old James Brissette, shot seven times), and the shooting of Henry Glover.
Thompson literally walks viewers through his work on the Glover case, the camera following him through the strip mall where Glover was shot (allegedly by David Warren, one of five former and current police officers now facing federal charges in the case), pointed at an erstwhile police station, now tattoo parlor ("You can still see the faded police decals" in the window, says Thompson over a shot illustrating same). Though Glover's companion on that day doesn't appear on camera, Thompson describes what he said about the shooting, an incident denied by the NOPD -- at least until Thompson digs up a police report, also showed on screen, with highlighting.
This report leads Thompson -- and the Frontline camera crew -- to other reports, including that autopsy of Glover's burned body, with "cause of death" left so peculiarly blank. Thompson's interview with New Orleans coroner Frank Minyard ("Was he shot, was he hit on the head? Did he shoot himself? Did he catch himself on fire"?) is set against a second interview, with medical examiner Kevin Whaley, who went to Louisiana after the storm as part of a federal disaster response team. He says the coroner's report is "suspicious." The sheer absence of evidence, incurred by the fire's abnormal heat, he says, "Well, that’s just really out of the ordinary. That’s like Roswell, New Mexico, out of the ordinary kind of stuff there."
Whaley sees evidence for his dramatic assessment when Thompson shows him the Balogh video: "There’s definitely a skull here," he says, a skull that Whaley never saw when he looked at the burned remains back in 2005. "It could have been misplaced," he muses, but "You don’t just misplace a skull. All that together is just highly suspicious for foul play for a homicide."
Though it presents only a fragment of Thompson's reporting over the past five years, Law & Disorder makes a few things clear. Glover's murder was covered up and his family, until very recently, believed they would never know what happened. Their expectation is premised on a long history of corruption in the New Orleans police department, a history made alarmingly and widely visible in these post-Katrina cases, but too well known to citizens.
When Thompson asks, "How did you feel when finally somebody from law enforcement came to you and said we want to know what happened that day?," Henry's brother Edward turns tearful. "That’s wrong what they did to my brother. It’s wrong," he says. "My mind is messed up. Every time I pass by that school, I get flashbacks. Sometimes I dream about it." Thus traumatized, he yet goes about his daily business. The program's last image is Edward mowing a lawn, a shot long and low and utterly haunting.