Profile: John Burris

Civil-rights activist has been holding law enforcement accountable for more than four decades

2016 November

For renowned civil-rights attorney John Burris, being a lawyer has been about more than merely practicing law, more than just trying good plaintiffs’ cases, more than just prevailing in the courtroom. It’s been about making an impact on clients’ lives and society as a whole.

“I’ve always wanted to bring about change,” said Burris, founder of John Burris Law Offices in Oakland. “It was never enough for me just to do the case. In my criminal defense work, I couldn’t see changes coming about; all I could see was that you do a case, the case gets done, and then you do another case. I didn’t feel satisfied just doing the case. Civil-rights work allowed me to at least give more thought to bringing about change – and that started to happen very quickly.”

Indeed, Burris has long been an activist lawyer against police brutality, misconduct, racial bias and profiling. Those issues have been at the center of his crusade to ensure law enforcement, and city officials are held accountable for unlawful behavior and unconstitutional treatment of people of color. Even before the current-day cases in Ferguson, Missouri; Baltimore; Charleston, South Carolina; and Oakland; and even before such high-profile past cases as the beating of Rodney King, the fatal shooting of Oscar Grant and the infamous Riders’ case involving Oakland police misconduct, Burris not only challenged the laws that seemingly protect law enforcement officers, but he also fought to establish meaningful reforms in how such officers conduct themselves.

While Burris may not have chosen law for the sole purpose of doing such work, his exposure as a child to racism and bias in the African-American community certainly had an influence on that decision.

“One of the things I always did as a kid: I was a reader of newspapers about public events; I watched the civil-rights movement, listened to all the big guys, always processing information,” Burris recalled. “I was always watching my dad, listening to black men talk, watching the TV, and this burning desire developed in me. I had a strong interest in current events and started reading the newspaper when I was very young. In fact, my dad used to get mad at me for getting the newspaper before he got a chance to read it. I was always curious about the world at large.”

As a youth, Burris saw firsthand the differences between whites and blacks, and it had an impact on him. No one had ever deliberately been discriminatory toward him, he said, but the words of one teacher stuck with him.

“I remember a teacher telling people in this one class, ‘None of you are going to go to college,’ and I was very much offended by that,” he said. “But in retrospect, I think he was just trying to motivate us. It certainly motivated me.”

As he grew older, Burris continued to read the work of writers such as novelist Richard Wright and investigative journalist Jack Anderson, and their musings inspired him “to do something with my life.” So he kept pushing, making career decisions that ultimately led him to do the work he’s doing today.

Burris’ first in-depth case centered on police misconduct that occurred in 1979 when a 14-year-old African-American boy named Melvin Black was shot multiple times and killed by Oakland police officers as he was running away. He was appointed by the mayor and City Council of Oakland to conduct an independent investigation into the shooting.

“You know, it seems unreal now, but it did happen,” Burris said. “I was a young guy at the time, and I set up this investigation. I hired an investigator, and we worked on this investigation for a number of months. At the end, I concluded that the shooting was unjustified, poor tactics, poor judgment, etc. That sort of started me on my way; it really showed me there was no real commitment to the truth by the police department and/or the political leaders.

“This was a firestorm that had taken place, and in my own mind’s eye, it was really for me to try to give some comfort level to the police and the city officials that they had acted properly,” he continued. “But once I finished my investigation and gave my report about it, they never spoke to me again. That to me was a clue that I don’t think I was well received.”

Blue-collar background, segregated schools

Burris grew up in Vallejo, a Bay Area working-class, blue-collar town that also was somewhat segregated during his youth. Sports teams were always integrated, however, and the young Burris played baseball, basketball and ran track alongside mostly white teammates.

Then something happened that gave him an opportunity to be on relatively equal ground with white classmates.

“I got pulled out of the black school and sent to another school, a white school, where essentially my sister and I were the only black people on the campus,” he recalled. “It was in fourth grade. I don’t know why it happened, but it did happen. I did well there, and that certainly allowed me to think I was competitive with everyone.”

When he finished the fourth grade, Burris was sent back to the all-black school. He saw racism early, in the seventh or eighth grade, even in sports, he said. He played on an all-white baseball team during those middle school years and then switched to a black team during high school.

Burris attended Vallejo Community College and then Golden Gate University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in accounting. He went on to earn an MBA from UC Berkeley Graduate School of Business and then decided to go to law school at Berkeley.

“In law school, I became much more aware of what you could do as a lawyer from a civil justice point of view,” Burris said. “My professors that I had, particularly Judge Henry Ramsey, really sort of channeled my energies around civil rights.”

Introduction to police-brutality claims

After law school, Burris went to work for a large law firm in Chicago, Jenner and Block, because, he said, it gave him the impression that it was a socially conscious firm. While there as a summer associate, he worked on the Metcalf Commission, investigating police-brutality claims in Chicago.

“That really sparked my interest … because I had watched much of the civil-rights movement unfold from California, and I was appalled at seeing what the police were doing with the dogs and the beatings and all that,” Burris said. “That piqued my consciousness, and so when I was in Chicago, it sort of gave me a chance to develop that undercurrent of what I wanted to do with my life as a lawyer.”

After two years in a permanent position with Jenner and Block, he worked as an assistant state’s attorney in Cook County, Illinois, for about a year before returning to the Bay Area to help raise his young son. Back in the East Bay, he worked as a prosecutor in the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office for about two years and then decided to open his own practice with two friends, Dave Alexander and Elihu Harris, who went on to become mayor of Oakland. That practice consisted mostly of criminal defense work, which he wasn’t particularly happy about, he said. Initially, Burris thought the criminal defense arena would mean less exposure to police bias and misconduct, but he still saw it early and often, the racism that existed within it, he said, and it weighed on him.

“I just felt what I was doing wasn’t why I went to law school, and I told myself I needed to do more civil-rights work,” he said. “We had a good firm going; the most fun I ever had as a lawyer was with those two guys. But I ultimately left to start my own practice.… So I started to get more into police litigation, and my practice took off from there.”

Working to improve the disparity

Two major police issues Burris is most concerned about are racial profiling and dealing with the mentally impaired. Profiling is an important issue to Burris because, while the spotlight always turns to police when there’s an officer-involved shooting, the vast majority of cases that manifest discriminatory law enforcement, he says, involve racial profiling. For example, when people are pulled over without probable cause or are stopped with pretext, then are searched and handcuffed.

“And if they protest, they wind up arrested for resisting arrest and ultimately have a dire consequence in their lives,” he said. “It’s a huge issue. We have the data – and when we look at the numbers, these disparate numbers, the question is why do we have those numbers? And what can we do to dial it back? I’m hopeful over time that strategies will be developed. … There’s certainly an implicit bias that has to be dealt with. But efforts are being made by certain focus groups to try to get officers to understand what they’re doing and what they should not be doing.”

As for treatment of the mentally impaired, Burris said people are dying because of the manner in which the police are dealing with them, basically treating mentally impaired people as if they’re normal people, expecting them to respond to their commands, when some of them just don’t get it. “My view on this is we want to save lives and get the police to start thinking that every confrontation is not one that necessarily should result in death, particularly when you’re dealing with mentally impaired people,” Burris said. “Even if that person is holding a knife – because the knife in itself should not be a death warrant.”

In court, Burris’ purpose is demonstrating that his client’s rights were abused, regardless of whether race plays into the matter. In fact, he said he tries not to use race if he can help it because it turns jurors off. He looks at what he can prove and how he can prove it. Dealing with the police culture – people for the most part want to believe the police – is another obstacle, he said.

“The issue of the case to me when I’m dealing with the police is: what is the tiebreaker?” he said. “It’s not an original concept – I sort of got that from one of the magistrates years ago. When I talk to my lawyers, I want to know what the tiebreaker is. The cops are going to lie – they’re going to tell their story. I say that because if they’re not lying, then I shouldn’t have the case. If they’re telling the truth, then that means my (client) is not truthful.

“I’m probably geared more toward liability than damages,” Burris added. “For me, it’s about the wrong and proving that wrong, and then the money will flow where it flows.”

Impactful stories

When he’s not working, Burris enjoys spending time with his wife of 15 years. They go to the theater and the cinema, not necessarily for the entertainment aspect but to see and hear a good true-to-life story, he said. Burris also is an avid reader, mostly perusing nonfiction books and the New York Times, sating his appetite for “information about the world in which we live,” he said.

“I have great empathy and pain in my heart when I read about how other black people live and how they’ve been killed,” Burris said. “The other day, I was reading New York Magazine about Wilmington, North Carolina. In 1898, white people in that town assassinated the black leaders, just killed them because they were tired of them leading. My heart goes out to those people because I can visualize how it must have felt and the pain they felt and the fear they felt. … I want to know about this history because I have to communicate it to the next generation.”

Burris has done a lot of that type of communication, spending his spare time talking with young African-American boys because he believes they’re in danger if they get on the wrong side of a police officer’s discretion. “So I try to protect kids, young people by giving them the rules of society – that’s a big part of what I do, making sure they understand that you may not want to deal with it, but you have to give black boys the talk,” he said. “And I do, 13 years old and up. I have two grandsons at that age now, and I give them the talk and constantly reinforce with my own sons about the talk.”

Giving aspiring lawyers the talk is another matter altogether, and Burris said there is one key element that rises above all the rest.

“Passion counts. You can’t do what I do without passion,” he said. “More lawyers come to me just because they’re a lawyer. I don’t want good lawyers; I want passionate lawyers. So I tell people make sure you have some passion for what you’re doing. Of course, you have to prepare and all that, but if you have a passion for it, then it’s not work.”

Stephen Ellison is a freelance writer and an award-winning newspaper journalist based in San Jose.  Contact him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Profile: John Burris
John Burris

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