Civil rights lawyer John Burris confronts police narratives

September 30, 2022 GMT
Attorney John Burris poses for photos at his office in Oakland, Calif., Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2022. For nearly 50 years, Burris has poked holes into narratives that did not add up, namely those of law enforcement accused of using excessive force. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
Attorney John Burris poses for photos at his office in Oakland, Calif., Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2022. For nearly 50 years, Burris has poked holes into narratives that did not add up, namely those of law enforcement accused of using excessive force. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
Attorney John Burris poses for photos at his office in Oakland, Calif., Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2022. For nearly 50 years, Burris has poked holes into narratives that did not add up, namely those of law enforcement accused of using excessive force. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
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Attorney John Burris poses for photos at his office in Oakland, Calif., Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2022. For nearly 50 years, Burris has poked holes into narratives that did not add up, namely those of law enforcement accused of using excessive force. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
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Attorney John Burris poses for photos at his office in Oakland, Calif., Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2022. For nearly 50 years, Burris has poked holes into narratives that did not add up, namely those of law enforcement accused of using excessive force. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — Before John Burris became the go-to lawyer for Northern California families grieving a loved one killed by police, the civil rights legend was a child suspicious of the Santa Claus narrative.

He didn’t understand why Santa was white. He was confused by Santa’s modus operandi — landing on rooftops to slide down chimneys to deliver presents? The Burris family had no chimney.

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

For nearly 50 years, the San Francisco Bay Area native has poked holes into narratives that did not add up, namely those of law enforcement accused of using excessive force. He estimates he has represented more than 1,000 victims of police misconduct, in California and elsewhere.

He helped win a civil jury verdict of $3.8 million 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 routinely inflicted on Black people. His practice 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 police shootings recorded on cellphone.

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But Burris prides himself on the smaller cases that have made up his career, and even at 77, he still travels to stand with clients at news conferences. Video evidence has helped enormously in altering public opinion, legal observers say, but so have attorneys like Burris who refuse to stop pushing, one police department at a time.

“The police were untouchable,” said retired U.S. Northern California Judge Thelton Henderson. “John was a part of changing all of that, changing and showing what the police department is like.”

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

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

DeWitt Burris was a tool room mechanic at a naval shipyard with side businesses in landscaping and fruit-picking, which John Burris did not enjoy. Imogene Burris was a psychiatric nurse technician at a state hospital who taught her children that everyone deserved fair treatment.

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John Burris was a big 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 later graduated with advanced degrees in business and law from the University of California, Berkeley, yearning to do more.

It bothered him that the proud men he admired, including his father and uncles, had served in the U.S. Navy but in menial roles because of their race. It burned him to learn, as a lawyer, that police beat and belittled Black fathers in front of their children.

“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 it was the destruction of the African American family that was taking place.”

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San Francisco Mayor London Breed, 48, grew up in public housing and recalled Burris as someone the Black community could go to for help.

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

Now, prospective clients crowd into the small waiting area of his law firm before they’re ushered into a conference room with expansive views of west Oakland.

The walls are studded with news articles chronicling legal achievements, proclamations of honor, and court illustrations of significant trials. One section is dedicated to Rosa Parks, the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis, and other civil rights heroes.

“I cannot be tired, I cannot quit,” Burris said, “because they did not quit.”

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

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Burris recalls King as a regular 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 never got to the point of being 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 stopped him for jaywalking and mocked his name, infuriating the late rapper. (“Tupac was a difficult guy to handle because he didn’t follow directions well,” Burris said.)

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

In 1996, Burris received his only disciplinary mark with the State Bar of California when his license was suspended for 30 days over ethical violations. He said he should have maintained closer supervision of a growing staff that sent out misleading mailers to victims of mass disasters. He also admitted to bouncing a check to another lawyer and failing to file lawsuits on time for two clients.

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Perhaps his greatest achievement was in reforming the Oakland Police Department, the result of 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 resulted in the department coming under federal oversight for nearly two decades as it slowly implemented dozens of reforms.

The reforms included collecting racial data on stops of motorists, and reporting and investigating when officers used force. Burris met with the police department and federal monitor at least once a month, and in recent years without pay — “a testament to his not being in this just for money,” said Oakland Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong.

Lawyers trained or mentored by Burris say he uses a different scale than other attorneys when weighing potential cases.

“He’s like, ‘What is the principle of this?’” said Oakland attorney Adante Pointer. “There might not be a bunch of money. But you know you’re going to make a world of difference in someone’s life.”

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

“I think it stirs up public sentiment unfairly. If he feels he has a viable civil case, the courtroom is where it should play out,” said Michael Rains, a Bay Area attorney who regularly defends police.

But Robert Collins is among clients who say the attorney provides invaluable guidance in a world where police usually dictate the narrative.

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

At a recent news 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 somebody of John’s caliber, with that much experience, is really, really helpful. Because it lets you know that you’re not going crazy,” Collins said.

Burris has promised to slow down and this summer, reorganized his solo practice to add law partners.

His wife of two decades, Cheryl Burris, recently retired from teaching at the School of Law 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 Rodney King was the villain to George Floyd, whose death sparked global outrage. But 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 who speak for them,” he said of his clients. “I feel very fortunate that I can be their champion, if you will, and be their go-to person.”

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AP researcher Rhonda Shafner contributed to this report.