Cover image for Blue vs. Black : let's end the conflict between cops and minorities
Blue vs. Black : let's end the conflict between cops and minorities
Burris, John L.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : St. Martin's Press, 1999.
Physical Description:
xii, 240 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm
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HV8141 .B85 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area
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Many of us believe that cases of police brutality are isolated events, having no bearing on our own lives. But incidents of cop violence against minority citizens have become far too common everywhere in America, and the problem affects us all.

In Blue vs. Black, John L. Burris, a nationally renowned civil rights attorney, tells the true, heartbreaking stories of many of them. Burris presents with compassion and insight a measure analysis of tensions between police and the people they are meant to protect, and he offers solutions for ending the cycle of police and civilian distrust.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Burris is a Los Angeles civil-rights lawyer who has represented famous and controversial figures, including Rodney King and Tupac Shakur. But he focuses on ordinary black men and women who've had negative, even abusive, encounters with the police. The subjects of his book, mostly law-abiding citizens, won judgments or settlements against the police because of the abuse they suffered: a woman beaten after receiving a summons for jaywalking, a community activist beaten after trying to protect children from a speeding police car. While Burris concedes that police abuse is committed by a few "bad apples," he looks beyond that simple explanation. He examines the systemic support of overzealous policing, particularly of minorities, and the protection afforded abusers by the "blue wall of silence." In addition to poignant stories of ordinary citizens abused by the police because of their race, Burris also provides insightful recommendations for police reform. This is a worthy read by a perceptive and insightful legal activist. Vernon Ford

Publisher's Weekly Review

A noted civil rights lawyer, Burris represented Rodney King in the suit against the LAPD that thrust the issue of police brutality into America's consciousness. With the able assistance of Whitney, he debunks the myth that the clash between cops and African-Americans is largely confined to the inner city, pointing to examples and statistics that indicate widespread abuse throughout the country. Careful to avoid listing "a catalog of horrors," Burris calmly spells out the details of several headline-grabbing incidents of police violence, such as the 1997 broomstick rape of a Haitian immigrant in a New York City police station and the 1991 savage beating by cops of the late rapper Tupac Shakur for jaywalking in Oakland, Calif. A series of lesser known situations involving average citizens sadly underscores the seriousness of police misconduct, including an incident in which a black father rushing his injured daughter to the hospital was stopped by police and assailed with stun guns before any questions were asked. Burris notes the high cost to taxpayers nationally for these violent outbursts, calling for a more effective review process to weed out rogue cops, extended investigative powers for Internal Affairs Departments that are independent of precincts and greater cooperation with those filing citizen's complaints. Though many of Burris's recommendations aren't revolutionary, this sane, practical book provides a promising call to action in the ongoing debate about this persistent societal blight. (Oct.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

The stories in this book would make anyone cry. Burris, a former district attorney, is now an L.A. civil rights attorney whose career includes defending African Americans unjustly beaten and killed by the police. Rodney King is only his most famous client; others were beaten, imprisoned, or killed for the proverbial "driving while black," running when shouted at, or being misunderstood. His litany of cases supports the conclusion that African Americans are not likely to get fair treatment. Burris's goals are, first, to get justice for his clients and, second, to reform the police culture through education, emphasis on communication and urban life experience for urban police, and the replacement of Internal Affairs with a working independent review board. None of these suggestions is new, but in the aftermath of King, Amadou Diallo, and Abner Louima, they all have a better chance of being enacted. For public libraries and criminal justice collections.ÄJanice Dunham, John Jay Coll. of Criminal Justice Lib., New York (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One A MAN WHO CRIED We have ground the manhood out of them, and the shame is ours not theirs. --Mark Twain Robert Davis was a man in his forties who worked as a janitor in the Oakland school district. One afternoon, Davis drove to the Wells Fargo Bank to take care of some business, and he brought along his three-year-old daughter. She loved going in the car with Daddy, as all kids do. After they finished at the bank, she was being a little rambunctious. She tried to jump into the car before Davis could lift her, and she slipped and fell onto the sidewalk. She wasn't really hurt, but she was crying a little, and when Davis picked her up, he noticed a bump on her head. He decided to drive to the hospital to make sure she was okay. As he strapped her into the car seat, a couple of women who were watching from nearby got it into their heads that maybe this man was kidnapping the little girl since she was crying. They called the police.     So Davis was driving along and all of a sudden there was a police car racing up behind him, with sirens blaring and lights flashing. Davis instinctively moved toward the side to let them pass. It didn't enter his mind that the car was chasing him . He wasn't speeding or anything. But the police car stayed behind him, and after a couple of blocks he finally figured out that they must be following him, so he pulled over and stopped. Two cops jumped out of the car and rushed up to Davis's driver's-side door.     "What's the problem, officers?" Davis barely got the words out of his mouth before the cops had pulled his door open. They yanked him from the car, and without another word one of the cops blasted him with a stun gun. He hit the ground, then in a pained daze tried to get up. His daughter was screaming with terror, and Davis, stumbling and disoriented, tried to reassure her. "I'm all right, baby. Daddy's all right." He felt an overwhelming need to go to her and protect her.     Davis was almost on his feet when the cop sent another wave of electricity blazing from the stun gun. As electricity surged through Robert Davis, he sank to the ground. The prongs were locked on, and he could no longer find his feet.     One of the officers approached him, roughly pulled his arms behind him, and cuffed him. Then he was dragged to the back of the police car and shoved inside. Davis had been subjected to thousands of volts of electricity. He was burned and in shock; he couldn't even speak. Neither of the police officers had told him yet why he had been pulled over. Neither of the officers had asked him for any information or identification. His daughter was screaming for her daddy. And not a word had been said to Robert Davis about why this was happening.     A few weeks after this incident, Davis and his wife came to my office. They walked in, holding hands, and seemed to be very loving and devoted to each other. Davis was an ordinary blue collar kind of guy, about five foot ten, maybe two hundred pounds, with a slight paunch and glasses. He flashed an engaging smile, so sweet and genuine that it lit up the room. There was nothing about him that appeared threatening or surly. He looked down at his lap while he was telling me his story, and I could see that tears were starting to glisten under his eyelids. He was so ashamed that his innocent daughter had had to witness this incident--that he couldn't protect her. It never fails. The victim is always ashamed.     My initial instinct, my gut response, was anger. I was so outraged that I wanted to get even for what had happened to this man. But instead, I took a deep breath and applied my training and experience. I forced my head to quiet the pleadings of my heart. I set aside my emotional reaction and reserved my judgment. I had learned never to take a story at face value. I wasn't there; I didn't see what happened. When people get excited, they sometimes blow things out of proportion. Or they fail to mention that they had been drinking, or in possession of drugs, or had physically resisted the police. A cop has the right to respond to these circumstances.     So the first thing I did after Davis and his wife left, was to call together my "rollout team." My team was made up of a couple of retired veteran cops who worked as private investigators, and a photographer who specialized in capturing the crucial details of a scene. Together we set out to discover as much as we could about Robert Davis and what really had happened to him.     Perhaps the most important thing we wanted to find out was this: What was the perspective of the police officers involved? Did Robert Davis do anything that might have led them to behave as they did? Even if the officers had made a mistake, did they make a wrong choice for the right reason? Were the officers following standard procedures? Were their actions reasonable under the circumstances?     That's why I use former cops as investigators. They've experienced similar situations and know what can happen in the heat of the moment. They intuitively understand what a cop's reasonable response might be. In the Davis incident, my investigators assured me that the cops didn't seem to have behaved reasonably, based on the given set of circumstances. Davis had pulled over and stopped his car. He wasn't acting hostile, just curious. Why hadn't the police officers questioned him? They might have said, "We had a report that a little girl was hurt." They could have spoken to the child and asked her, "Is this your daddy? Are you okay?" Instead, acting on the report of a possible kidnapping by a couple of highly agitated bystanders, the officers had made some very rash judgments. They had drawn a conclusion and reacted before they had any actual evidence of wrongdoing.     As we continued to investigate, we learned that Robert Davis was a solid citizen. He'd never been in trouble with the law. In fact, he seemed to be a real prince of a man. He loved his wife, adored his two daughters, and was devoted to his mother. He was a deacon at his church--the same little family church of twenty-five people he'd been going to since he was a boy. The teachers at the schools where he was a janitor couldn't say enough good things about him--how the kids all loved him, how he'd do anything for you, how he took so much pride in making the buildings shine. Everyone we talked to was shocked that this could have happened to Robert Davis.     So I eagerly took on Robert Davis's case. He was by all accounts a good guy, who had been pulled out of his normal, everyday life, and assaulted. He had been confronted by two police officers, rendered senseless without a word from them, and painfully robbed of his dignity. He had been treated like a dangerous criminal in front of his child. Passersby who saw the incident no doubt thought, That black guy must be really violent. Why else would two cops shoot him continuously with 50,000 volts of electricity?     When Robert Davis was finally given his day in court, my job was to introduce him to the mostly white jury as a good man--just like them. I wanted the jurors to see the person this terrible thing had happened to. To help them get past the stereotypes about race and class. To let them know how he had been hurt, not just physically, but in a more penetrating way--psychologically. In order to give the jurors a sense of what a decent man Davis was, I brought in all the teachers from the schools he worked at, the preacher from his church, the folks in his neighborhood, and I let them tell the jury about Robert Davis.     During the trial I also played a tape-recording of the sound a stun gun makes when it's activated. It's a sickening sound--somewhere between the violent crack of a bullwhip and the spitting, snarling hiss and sizzle of a high-voltage wire dancing on the ground after it's been downed in a storm. The jurors flinched with each crack. I ran the tape for the same amount of time that Robert Davis had been jolted by the stun gun. Davis sat at the plaintiff's table, clenching his hands and grimacing with real pain as the sound of his torment was replayed. I told the jury that being continuously zapped by a stun gun felt like being electrocuted.     When Davis took the stand and started to talk about what had happened, his voice cracked. He was a proud man, and he was ashamed of his tears, but they came anyway, sliding down his cheeks. He looked into my eyes and his voice was full of hurt. "Why did they do me that way, Mr. Burris? Why couldn't they just talk to me? I'm not a criminal. I'm not violent. Why did they do me that way?"     I knew the answer. Because they could .     The jury awarded Davis $25,000. It wasn't much in the scheme of things. What price do you place on an experience like that? How many people want to be nearly electrocuted? Who would do that for the money? In a civil trial, money becomes the currency of justice. The court equates the awarding of money with that justice, and the payment is retribution for the respect that was withheld in the first place. Robert Davis wasn't looking for any of this to happen. Respect was all he ever wanted.     This turned out to be an extraordinary case in one regard. After the verdict was reached, one of the police officers who had been in the car that day, approached Davis and took his hand. "I want to say how sorry I am," the officer said. "This shouldn't have happened. I hope things go all right for you." I think that officer's apology meant a lot more to Davis than the money did. It's the only time I've ever heard a cop say he was sorry. Davis is Everyman     Robert Davis was an ordinary man--no more, no less--and when this incident occurred, there was nothing he could do about it. You might think, At least he got justice in court. The system worked .     But did it?     Robert Davis won in court, but that wasn't true justice. True justice occurs when a person can come to court and have his case heard in a setting free of preconceived notions about race or class. True justice happens in an environment where police officers are not automatically presumed to be telling the truth--when a citizen's complaint can be weighed in equal balance. We haven't arrived at that point yet. Had Robert Davis's character been an iota less sterling, his chances of receiving a fair hearing would have been dramatically lessened.     From my point of view, Robert Davis's experience is not one man's travel on an isolated road that leads to nowhere. This is a road that is similar to what a lot of lawyers in a lot of different urban centers are grappling with. Robert Davis represents many different cases. He is the invisible man in our culture.     If someone like this could be treated so egregiously, what hope could there be for a black person who was engaged in criminal activity? Our constitution provides due process for every citizen, even a criminal. Yet most people are relatively indifferent to reports of police officers administering street justice, even though their actions challenge the very foundation of our democracy.     It was an honor to represent Robert Davis. He is good and decent--with a special quality about him I'll never forget. He epitomizes what has happened to black men for as long as I can remember, back to the days when I was a kid watching the civil-rights movement unfold in front of my eyes in Little Rock, Arkansas, and Selma, Alabama. I was young then, and I was safe in my stable home, in my working-class town of Vallejo, California. But I saw the scenes on TV--the firehoses, the dogs, the beatings, and the lines of brave people, locking arms and singing even as they were roughed up and cut down. The old spirituals rose from their midst, the deep contralto tones mingling with the shouts and cries: " We shall overcome someday ."     It left an impression on me, that the police could abuse their authority and hurt good and ordinary people. That they could use the badge as a shield against their own misdeeds. I had not experienced it myself, but I knew it to be true.     Something moved very deep inside of me as I watched Robert Davis, crying on the stand and asking me in a choked voice, "Mr. Burris, why did they do this to me?" And as he wept, the all-white jury stared at him, dispassionate. His wife and daughter looked on with tightened mouths, tears slowly rolling down their faces.     A grown man crying. I will always remember two things about Robert Davis--the light of his smile and the pain of his tears.     It broke my heart, and deepened my resolve.