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Ex-Tremely Cool: A Bay Area Muckraker Gets the David Simon Treatment

The new season of David Simon’s HBO series Treme, which started Sunday and runs through Nov. 25, features a new character modeled on A.C. Thompson, the award-winning Bay Area reporter (Bay Guardian, Chauncey Bailey Project) whose exposés of police wrongdoing after Hurricane Katrina shook up New Orleans. Now with the journalism nonprofit ProPublica and working out of the East Bay again after three years in New York, Thompson talks about putting bad cops in jail and spinning drudgery into art.

[Note: a shorter version of this interview appears in the October issue]

You started reporting on New Orleans in 2007, when you were a freelancer living in SF. How’d you get onto this huge story?
I went down to look into alleged hate crimes—white folks attacking black folks—in the wake of Katrina. I thought I’d be done in a month. I was naïve, I was just Bambi. What I didn’t understand about New Orleans is that when you call the coroner and talk to his staff about getting autopsy records, they would tell you, “Well they may be public records under the law, but we don’t follow the law.” Even the most basic reporting task turns out to be an epic undertaking in New Orleans.

The hate-crimes story led to the police-misconduct story and the discovery of police involvement in the murder of a black man named Henry Glover. To cover up that crime, they burned his body—reduced it to ashes and bone fragments. Five current or former police officers ended up being charged in federal court for their involvement with that crime. Some are now spending a very long time in prison.

To do that reporting, you had the support of a number of news organizations over the years, including the Nation Institute, ProPublica, New America Media, and the New Orleans Times-Picayune. How did you translate a massive, grinding, multi-year investigative project like that for TV?
I spent a good deal of time downloading my brain, with some troubleshooting on the fly. The show has some amazing writers—George Pelecanos, Anthony Bourdain. Sometimes people would call me from the writers’ room and say, “Hey does this make sense? Could this happen like this? Break this down for us.” I’m one of the few people who’s read all the Katrina autopsies, so I could explain how the process worked with the morgue and the bodies, what killed people, what the authorities did. I read every script and made suggestions about dialogue and plotlines that probably vastly overstepped the consultant boundary, and I tried to help the writers be as accurate as possible.

In other shows, California writers will create dialogue for police detectives in other states and they’ll call a homicide a 187. Well, a 187 is the California penal code, it’s not the penal code for homicides in Louisiana. I tried to make sure the writers didn’t import something that happened in 2011, say, into 2007 or 2008. David Simon [and his co-creator Eric Overmyer] want to get that stuff right.

What’s your favorite Simon show?
I think Homicide was a genius show. And The Wire obviously was a high-water mark for television, especially [season four], which focused on education. There’s nothing more tragic than children’s futures being trashed, and that’s what made that season so captivating and so painful.

I used to do writing workshops with young offenders in San Francisco juvenile hall. And growing up, I was a young offender. A lot of my friends got into serious legal trouble. Some were deported, some spent long periods of time in prison, some are dead. So those are stories that resonate with me.

Is it weird to see yourself turned into a fictional guy named L.P. Everett?
The funny thing is that it’s not that strange. Maybe that says something about me—I don’t know. I didn’t worry that if he does something outrageous or stupid, will people think I’m outrageous or stupid. I found it very fun and actually kind of liberating.

Of course, the first thing my mom said was, “Chris Coy [the True Blood actor playing Everett] is a lot younger than you are.”

I think he looks a little like you.
I don’t think he looks me! I would have cast, like, The Rock.