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Civil rights lawyer John Burris confronts police narratives

OAKLAND, Calif. — Before John Burris became the go-to advocate for Northern California families mourning a loved one killed by police, the civil rights legend was a child wary of the Santa Claus narrative.

He didn’t understand why Santa Claus was white. He was troubled by Santa’s modus operandi – landing on rooftops to slide down chimneys to deliver presents? The Burris family didn’t have a fireplace.

“I couldn’t accept it,” he said, “because it didn’t make sense to me.”

For nearly 50 years, the San Francisco Bay Area native drilled into stories that didn’t match, namely those of law enforcement accused of using excessive force. He estimates that he has represented more than 1,000 victims of police misconduct, in California and elsewhere.

He helped secure a $3.8 million civil jury verdict for the late Rodney King, a black motorist whose 1991 beating by four Los Angeles police officers – captured on grainy camcorder video – shocked a public unaware of the brutality regularly inflicted on black people. His firm also negotiated nearly $3 million for the family of Oscar Grant, a young black man killed by a Bay Area transit officer in 2009 in one of the first recorded police shootings on record. cellphone.

But Burris is proud of the small business that has made his career, and even at 77 he still travels to stand with clients at press conferences. Video evidence has done a huge job in shifting public opinion, legal observers say, but so have lawyers like Burris who refuse to stop pushing, one police department at a time.

“The police were untouchable,” said Thelton Henderson, a retired US judge from northern California. “John was instrumental in changing all of that, in changing and showing what the police department looks like.”

As Burris prepares to hand over the reins of his practice to a younger generation, he sat down for interviews with The Associated Press and reflected on a career that began with accounting before landing on responsibility for the police as a way to better his community.

Burris grew up in the working-class town of Vallejo, the oldest of six.

DeWitt Burris was a tool room mechanic at a shipyard with side jobs in landscaping and fruit picking, which John Burris disliked. Imogene Burris was a psychiatric nurse technician at a state hospital who taught her children that everyone deserved fair treatment.

John Burris was an avid reader and as the civil rights era progressed, a speech class at Solano Community College showed him that people listened to what he had to say. He went on to earn advanced degrees in business and law from the University of California, Berkeley, eager to do more.

It bothered him that the proud men he looked up to, including his father and uncles, had served in the US Navy but in menial roles due to their race. It burned him to learn, as a lawyer, that the police beat and belittled black fathers in front of their children.

“The police didn’t have to do certain things,” Burris said. “I could see how black men were treated in the criminal justice system. I understood that it was the destruction of the African American family that was taking place.”

San Francisco Mayor London Breed, 48, grew up in public housing and remembered Burris as someone the black community could turn to for help.

“There were certain lawyers who had solid reputations, and he was one of them,” she said. “It was a big deal that he was African American.”

Now potential clients throng the small waiting room of his law office before being ushered into a conference room with sweeping views of West Oakland.

The walls are littered with news articles chronicling legal accomplishments, proclamations of honor and judicial illustrations of important trials. A section is devoted to Rosa Parks, the late US Representative John Lewis and other civil rights heroes.

“I can’t be tired, I can’t stop,” Burris said, “because they didn’t stop.”

Rodney King’s first choice to represent him in his civil case was Johnnie Cochran, but the aide who took the call to Cochran’s office said the lawyer had been tied up for several months. (“Obviously he was furious when he found out,” Burris said.) The case went to Milton Grimes, who called on Burris for his expertise in police brutality.

Burris remembers King as an ordinary guy unable to handle a media frenzy that relentlessly cast him in a negative light. Close friends called him by his middle name, Glen.

“He was never able to handle being Rodney King,” Burris said. “He wanted to be Glen.”

He represented Tupac Shakur in a lawsuit against the Oakland Police Department after two officers arrested him for jaywalking and mocked his name, infuriating the late rapper. (“Tupac was a tough guy to deal with because he didn’t follow instructions well,” Burris said.)

His profile grew throughout the 1990s, with regular television appearances as a commentator during the OJ Simpson murder trial.

In 1996, Burris received his only disciplinary mark from the California State Bar when his license was suspended for 30 days for an ethics violation. He said he should have maintained closer scrutiny of a growing staff who sent misleading mail to victims of mass disasters. He also admitted to bouncing a check to another attorney and failing to sue two clients in time.

Perhaps his greatest achievement was reforming the Oakland Police Department, following a class action lawsuit he and attorney Jim Chanin filed in 2000 against a rogue unit that planted drugs and made false arrests. The Oakland “Riders” case put the department under federal scrutiny for nearly two decades as it slowly implemented dozens of reforms.

The reforms included collecting racial data on motorist stops, and reporting and investigating when officers used force. Burris has met with the police department and the federal comptroller at least once a month, and in recent years without pay — ‘proof he’s not in it just for the money,’ the police chief said of Oakland, LeRonne Armstrong.

Lawyers trained or mentored by Burris say he uses a different scale than other lawyers to assess potential cases.

“He’s like, ‘What’s the premise of this?'” Oakland attorney Adante Pointer said. “There may not be a lot of money. But you know you’re going to make a big difference in someone’s life.”

Not everyone appreciates his talent for publicity, even if they admire his legal skills.

“I think it unfairly stokes public opinion. If he feels he has a viable civil case, the courtroom is where it should be,” said Michael Rains, a Bay attorney. Area which regularly defends the police.

But Robert Collins is among clients who say the lawyer provides invaluable advice in a world where the police typically dictate the narrative.

In December 2020, Collins’ stepson Angelo Quinto died after Antioch police rolled him onto his stomach, pressed one knee to his neck, and handcuffed him. Police said Quinto, who was in psychological distress, was combative and drugged when he was neither, the family said.

At a recent press conference, Burris blasted Contra Costa County District Attorney Diana Becton’s decision not to criminally charge the officers. He comforted family members with hugs.

“Having someone of John’s caliber, with that much experience, is really, really helpful. Because it lets you know you’re not going crazy,” Collins said.

Burris vowed to slow down and this summer revamped her solo practice to add law associates.

His wife of two decades, Cheryl Burris, recently retired from teaching law school at North Carolina Central University, a historically black university. Both are active in mentoring black youth.

He marvels at the changes, from a time when the public insisted that Rodney King was the villain of George Floyd, whose death sparked global outrage. But the shootings, racial profiling and inadequate response to mental health emergencies will continue without pressure for reform, he said.

“I know they don’t have a lot of people speaking for them,” he said of his clients. “I feel very lucky to be able to be their champion, if you will, and be their go-to person.”


AP researcher Rhonda Shafner contributed to this report.