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Fighting police brutality, the Johnnie Cochran way

When Johnnie Cochran and his entourage strode into the California Attorney General’s Los Angeles Office in 1989, a buzz rippled down the hallway. We stepped away from our onerous caseloads to catch a glimpse of LA’s premiere African American attorney, famous nationwide for winning multi-million-dollar jury verdicts in police brutality cases. As a 26-year-old newbie Deputy Attorney General, I was starstruck. Cochran – wearing a sharply tailored suit, bright Italian silk tie and matching pocket square – exuded a charismatic confidence unlike any opposing counsel who’d visited our drab offices.

Cochran represented the family of Yusuf Bilal, a 38-year-old African American father of four, killed by a California Highway Patrol Officer during a routine traffic stop. The officer, one of our clients, shot the unarmed Bilal three times in the back after a minor altercation.

Cochran’s reputation for painstaking pre-trial preparation and rapport with juries struck terror in the hearts of many a government lawyer including my supervising attorney – a racist, middle-aged, white male bureaucrat. Trying a police brutality case against Cochran would both cramp his minimum-hours-required ethos and leave egg on his face if he lost, saddling the state with a huge verdict. To avoid such unpleasantries, my supervisor successfully pleaded with the head California Department of Justice honchos in Sacramento to sign off on a $1.2 million settlement offer – a coup during those fiscally lean times.

The day Cochran’s clients refused the offer, I remember my supervisor’s already pallid skin turning corpselike gray. He would have to face Cochran in court. Well prepared, eloquent and charming as usual, Cochran prevailed at trial – winning a $2.4 million verdict for Bilal’s family.

While riots raged across the country protesting the death of George Floyd, another unarmed black man violently murdered by a police officer, I’ve been thinking of Cochran who died too young in 2005. He exemplifies a highly effective way to combat police brutality – legal prowess. We desperately need more lawyers like him, with the moxie and experience to file complex personal injury cases against powerful government entities.

In a Black Entertainment Television documentary about his career, Cochran said, “All you’re left with after a crisis is your conduct during it.” When rioting broke out in Los Angeles in 1992 after a jury exonerated the LAPD officers charged with savagely beating Rodney King, another unarmed man during a traffic stop, Cochran urged calm. “If you love Los Angeles, you don’t want to see it burn down … you can vent your frustrations without burning down your entire community,” he said on a televised broadcast.

Cochran believed playing the long game through strategic lawsuits stood better odds of making lasting change than disruptive street riots. In his 2003 autobiography “A Lawyer’s Life,” Cochran wrote that his idol, civil rights lawyer and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall’s career proved “a single dedicated man could use the law to change society.” Cochran succeeded by learning how to deploy personal injury law and courtroom finesse to relentlessly hit city and state governments in their pocketbooks. His oratorical skills and big jury verdicts garnered extensive press attention and created political pressure on police forces to amp up de-escalation training, reform aggressive practices (like the chokehold) and rid themselves of bad actors.

As a former cog in the California judicial system, I learned that waiting for the wheels of justice to turn in our vast state takes patience. While representing a CHP officer who beat up an unarmed gay man, I saw how excessive force worms its way into rogue law enforcement culture and becomes a too frequently tolerated evil. Because some officers cherish their badges primarily for the immense power they confer, police brutality will never be legislated away entirely. Personal injury law must then be wielded like a surgical knife to remove cancerous officers one by one before they corrupt the entire system.

When government prosecutors refuse to file criminal charges against violent officers, and internal police review systems fail to hold them accountable, a third way exists – the Johnnie Cochran way of filing strategic personal injury lawsuits on behalf of the victims’ bereaved families. Cochran’s patient resolve and ability to channel his outrage into the courtroom to vanquish government and police union lawyers provides a model for a new generation of attorneys.

In the BET documentary, Cochran said, “African Americans live with offensive words, looks and treatment every day of our lives but we still believe in this country. I love being black. Our best days as a people lie ahead of us.” Cochran’s dogged optimism challenges lawyers of all creeds to prove we can challenge racism and police brutality in court and make black lives, not only matter, but better. We can’t allow the repeated, murderous police brutality to annihilate our dreams of justice.

Sharon Rosen Leib is an award-winning freelance journalist and longtime contributing writer for the San Diego Jewish Journal.

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