In wake of Glover verdicts, what's next for New Orleans' troubled police force?

By A.C. Thompson, ProPublica

One of the most striking moments in the federal civil rights prosecutions arising from the death of Henry Glover came when Lt. Dwayne Scheuermann, a police officer lauded in New Orleans for his heroic work after Hurricane Katrina, took the stand.

Scheuermann told jurors he watched his colleague, officer Greg McRae, set fire to a car containing the corpse of the 31-year old man, igniting a blaze that reduced the body to little more than bone fragments, ashes, and scorched meat.

McRae burned Glover's body so thoroughly that a forensic pathologist had to saw off a piece of bone and send it out for DNA testing so the remains could be identified. For about nine months, Glover was known only as coroner's case number 06-00189 while his family members searched to find out what had happened to him.

The jury found McRae's behavior a crime, and reasonable people might view it as the sort of horrific conduct practiced by the security agents of authoritarian regimes. Yet as Scheuermann told the story, there was no indication he did anything to alert his superiors or co-workers or anybody else to the incineration of a human being -- one who it turns out had just been shot by another police officer.

Last week a federal jury in New Orleans rendered a verdict in the Glover case, convicting two police officers (for burning the man's corpse, violating civil rights, obstructing justice, and misleading federal investigators) and a former cop (for shooting Glover with a .223 caliber assault rifle).

Scheuermann, a 23-year veteran of the force, won't be going to prison: The jury cleared him of any wrongdoing (he'd been charged with participating in the arson, as well as civil rights violations and obstruction of justice). The jury also acquitted former Lt. Robert Italiano (he was accused of creating a bogus police report and lying to the FBI).

The question now facing Mayor Mitch Landrieu and Police Chief Ronal Serpas is: What verdict do they want to render?

Trials are a blunt instrument for reforming police departments -- they typically target a small number of cops who may have committed a handful of acts whose criminality can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Juries are reluctant to convict cops, even without the extenuating circumstances created by the collapse in public order that was post-Katrina New Orleans.

As of today, Scheuermann remains in the employ of the New Orleans Police Department. But his admissions during the Glover trial, not to mention his history in uniform, which includes some 15 shooting incidents (a very high number for any cop) and more than 50 citizen complaints, raise questions about whether his police career should continue.

If the city really wants to transform its police force, NOPD officials and the mayor will need to thoroughly examine what has been revealed by these cases, regardless of whether the officers involved were convicted, acquitted, or testified with grants of immunity.

Several officers took the stand during the Glover trial and admitted that they had lied to federal investigators.

Scheuermann's statements during this trial -- and the testimony of those other officers -- make it clear that the issues with the New Orleans police go far beyond the misconduct by a few rogue cops.

I've been reporting in New Orleans for more than three years, and I can say I've never encountered more people who are terrified of the police. Looking at the sad and awful death of Henry Glover, it's easy to see why.

* * *

Let's go back to 2007.

On a cool September day that year, I stepped into the living room of Edna Glover's town home in the William J. Fischer Housing Development, a public housing complex in the Algiers section of New Orleans.

When I'd arranged to meet with Edna the day before, I'd assumed we'd be speaking one-on-one. But now, I discovered, the living room of her small, tidy house was packed with at least a dozen family members and friends.

I'd contacted Edna in hopes of learning what had become of her son, Henry Glover, who'd died shortly after Hurricane Katrina raged through Louisiana. I knew very little about Henry Glover, but I'd uncovered a pair of facts that intrigued me: 1) a witness had said Glover died while in the custody of the New Orleans Police Department, and 2) some kind of fire had reduced Glover's body to "extensively charred bone fragments," according to the autopsy report.

I figured my conversation with Edna would allow me to easily reconstruct Glover's final hours -- and if it seemed that he'd been the victim of some kind of injustice, I'd write up a story.

But as I stepped into the house and began speaking with the extended Glover clan, I quickly found the roles reversed. The family had gathered because they were hoping I could explain to them who had killed Glover and exactly what role the police had played in his demise. At that point, it had been two years since Glover died, yet the people closest to him still had only a vague sketch of his death, and they hadn't been able to pry any information out of the police department or prod the cops into actually opening an investigation.

"We didn't hear nothing" from the police department, Edna told me.

I was chilled. It felt like I had walked into a scene from Pinochet's Chile, with mothers desperately demanding to know what the dictator had done with their missing children.

That day I spoke to Glover's brother, Edward King, and William Tanner, both of whom had been with Glover when he died. The men said somebody -- they didn't know who -- had shot Glover near a strip mall in the Algiers section of New Orleans on Sept. 2, 2005.

King, Tanner and another man placed Glover in Tanner's car and drove him to a site where they thought he could get medical treatment: an elementary school that had been turned into a makeshift police encampment by SWAT team cops.

But the officers, both men said, greeted them with immediate hostility, physically attacking them and leaving Glover to bleed to death in the car. "They called my brother a piece of shit," recalled King during that interview. "They was saying a lot of crazy shit." King, who did not testify at trial, was mystified as to why the cops were so angry. He had no idea who had fired the shot which hit his brother.

Tanner remembered seeing one cop, with flares sticking out of his pants pocket, get into his vehicle and drive away with Glover's body. The next time anybody saw Glover his body had been incinerated.

Not surprisingly, the Glover family believed the police were responsible.

What eventually spilled out during the trial made it clear that things were even worse than I or the Glover family thought back then. Not only did cops desecrate Glover's body, it was a police officer who'd shot him, and police officers who worked to cover it all up.

* * *

In 2008, as I continued to search for clues, I met with a law enforcement source who showed me photos of Glover's incinerated remains, which lay scattered around the inside of the burnt car. The man's blackened skull featured prominently in many of the photos.

The source was scared. This person was worried that if anybody learned we were talking, something bad would happen, like an NOPD officer might plant "a couple kilos of coke" on the source during a traffic stop. At the time I thought the person was paranoid and had probably watched Training Day too many times.

I now believe this person had some reason for that fear. A strain of corruption has plagued the department for decades. Earlier this year I interviewed Mike Thames, an ex-cop, who served on the force during the 1980s and 1990s. Thames told me about how he allowed drug dealers to distribute their product with impunity (so long as they shared the proceeds with him), protected gambling rings, and robbed legitimate businesses.

Thames said his superiors were aware of his extra-curricular activities. "They knew what I was doing. They knew what me, and my friends, were doing. They ... they knew the whole way."

Significantly, it wasn't the NOPD's internal affairs unit or the local district attorney that eventually took Thames down: He went to prison for bank robbery, a federal crime.

Kevin Diel, an ex-officer who served during Katrina and its aftermath, says his former colleagues planted drugs and drug paraphernalia on innocent people. "A lot of the task forces and narcotics guys really kind of get involved in that because of all the pressure from the upper brass," he said. "It's to make numbers, your quotas."

That kind of criminal misconduct, he said, occurred "on a regular basis," because speaking out about it might lead to severe retaliation from other officers, who were known to deny "breathing privileges" to whistleblowers.

Perhaps this fear explains the most disturbing fact to come out of the trial:

Nobody within the New Orleans Police Department ever tried to bring Warren, McRae and the rest to justice. Nobody went to the chief. Nobody went to internal affairs. Nobody went to the local district attorney or the state attorney general or the U.S. Department of Justice.

Every single officer who knew about the circumstances of Glover's demise, and there were easily a dozen of them, was content to simply let him disappear.