OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — Before John Burris became the lawyer of choice for Northern California families, the civil rights legend was a child who doubted the story of Santa Claus.
He didn’t understand why Santa was white. He was baffled by Santa’s modus operandi – landing on the roof and sliding down the chimney to deliver presents? The Burris family does not have a chimney.
“I can’t take it,” he said, “because it doesn’t make sense to me.”
For nearly 50 years, the Bay Area native has been digging holes for narratives that don’t add up: 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 $3.8 million civil jury verdict for the late black motorist Rodney King, who was shocked by the 1991 beating by four Los Angeles police officers — caught on grainy camera video — The public, they don’t know the atrocities that are often inflicted on black people. His approach also negotiated nearly $3 million for the family of Oscar Grant, a young black man who was killed by Bay Area traffic officials in 2009 in the first police shooting recorded on his cell phone.
But Burris is proud of the small cases in his career, and even at 77, he still stands with clients in press conferences. Legal observers say the video evidence has dramatically changed public opinion, but so has lawyers like Burris who refuse to stop pushing, one police department at a time.
“The police are untouchable,” said retired U.S. Northern California judge Selton Henderson. “John was part of changing it all, changing and showing what the police department looks like.”
As Burris prepares to hand his business over to a younger generation, he spoke to The Associated Press and reflects on starting a career in accounting and then looking at 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 who also did landscaping and fruit picking, something John Burris didn’t like. Imogene Burris, a psychiatric nurse technologist at a state hospital, teaches her children that everyone deserves fair treatment.
John Burris was a big reader, and as the Civil Rights era unfolded, his speech class at Solano Community College showed him that people listened to what he had to say. He later graduated from UC Berkeley with advanced degrees in business and law, eager to do more.
It troubled him that the proud men he admired, including his father and uncle, had served in the U.S. Navy but held lowly roles because of their race. As a lawyer, he was distressed to learn that police beat and belittled black fathers in front of their children.
“The police don’t have to do certain things,” Burris said. “I can see how black people are being treated in the criminal justice system. I know this is the devastation that’s happening to African American families.”
San Francisco Mayor London Breed, 48, who grew up in public housing, recalls Burris as someone the black community could turn to for help.
“There are lawyers with great reputations, and he’s one of them,” she said. “He’s African American, and that’s important.”
Now, potential clients flock to his law firm’s small waiting area, before being ushered into a conference room with expansive views of west Auckland.
The walls are studded with news articles documenting legal achievements, declarations of honor, and courtroom illustrations of important trials. A section dedicated to the late U.S. Representative Rosa Parks. John Lewis and other civil rights heroes.
“I can’t get tired, I can’t give up,” Burris said, “because they didn’t give up.”
Rodney King’s preferred representative in civil cases was Johnny Cochran, but an assistant who answered the phone in Cochran’s office said the lawyer was tied up for months. (“Obviously, when he found out about it, he was pissed,” Burris said.) The case went to Milton Grimes, who pulled Burris for his expertise in police brutality Come in.
King, Burris recalls, was a normal human being unable to cope with the media frenzy that had relentlessly negatively impacted him. Close friends call him Glenn by his middle name.
“He never got to the point where he could handle Rodney King,” Burris said. “He wants to be Glenn.”
He angered the late rapper by filing a lawsuit against the Oakland Police Department on behalf of Tupac Shakur after two officers stopped him from jaywalking and mocked his name. (“Tupac was a tough guy to deal with because he didn’t follow instructions well,” Burris said.)
His profile continued to grow throughout the 1990s, and he was a regular TV commentator during the OJ Simpson murder trial.
In 1996, Burris received a 30-day license suspension for ethical violations, the only disciplinary action by the California Bar. He said he should maintain closer scrutiny of the growing workforce sending misleading emails to victims of mass disasters. He also admitted returning the check to another attorney and failing to file a lawsuit on time for two clients.
Perhaps his greatest achievement was reforming the Oakland Police Department, the result of a 2000 class-action lawsuit he and attorney Jim Channing filed against a rogue unit that grew drugs and made false arrests. The Oakland “Rider” case has brought the department under federal scrutiny for nearly two decades as it slowly implemented dozens of reforms.
The reforms include collecting racial data on motorist parking, as well as reporting and investigating when police use force. Burris, who has met with the police department and federal ombudsman at least once a month, has been unpaid in recent years — “which proves he wasn’t involved for the money,” said Oakland Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong.
Lawyers trained or mentored by Burris say he uses a different ratio than others when weighing potential cases.
“He was like, ‘What’s this?'” Oakland attorney Adante Pointer said. “Probably not a ton of money. But you know you’re going to change someone’s life.”
Not everyone appreciates his advocacy skills, even if they admire his legal skills.
“I don’t think it’s unfairly stirred up public sentiment. If he feels he has a viable civil case, then the courts are the place to play,” said Michael Rains, a Bay Area attorney who often defends police.
But clients such as Robert Collins said the lawyer provided invaluable guidance in a world where police typically dictate narratives.
In December 2020, Collins’ stepson, Angelo Quinto, died after police in Antioch pinned him to his stomach, kneeled him around his neck and handcuffed him. Police said Quinto, who was in psychological distress, was aggressive and took drugs, but he was not, the family said.
In a recent news conference, Burris blasted Contra Costa County District Attorney Diana Beckton’s decision not to bring criminal charges against the police. He comforted his family with hugs.
“Having someone like John with so much experience really, really helps. Because it lets you know you’re not going crazy,” Collins said.
Burris promised to slow down, and this summer he restructured his personal practice, adding a legal partner.
His wife of twenty years, Cheryl Burris, recently retired from teaching at North Carolina Central University School of Law, a historically black university. Both actively mentor black youth.
He marveled at the changes, from the public’s insistence that Rodney King was a villain to the global outrage over the death of George Floyd. But he said shootings, racial profiling and inadequate responses to mental health emergencies will continue without pressure for reform.
“I know they don’t have a lot of people speaking up for them,” he said of his clients. “I’m lucky to be their champion, their first choice, if you will.”
Associated Press researcher Rhonda Schaffner contributed to this report.