Seeking justice — and millions — for families of people killed by police
As police shootings have become central to a national debate over race and law enforcement, lawyers who bill themselves as civil rights fighters are emerging.
After Walter Scott was fatally shot last year by a South Carolina police officer, Justin Bamberg stood with Scott’s family to demand justice. He did as much after an officer in Louisiana shot and killed Alton Sterling this summer.
And last month in Charlotte, N.C., Bamberg was alongside the family of Keith Lamont Scott, another African American man who died at the hands of a police officer.
As high-profile police shootings have become central to a national debate over race and law enforcement, Bamberg has emerged as a rising star in a quasi-fraternity of lawyers who bill themselves as both civil rights fighters and tort attorneys who can win millions of dollars in wrongful-death payouts.
These attorneys employ sophisticated media strategies as they battle on the national stage with police while becoming coaches and confidants for families behind closed doors. They bond over drinks at legal conferences, recommend clients to one another and borrow tactics from each other’s playbooks.
"You have to be a counselor on one hand and an investigator on another. You have to work media relations, and then you have to talk to people on the ground," Bamberg said. “It’s all about getting down to what happened."
He spoke from his office, where an enlarged print of still images from video of the Walter Scott shooting — key evidence in the case — leaned against a wall. It was next to a framed print of faces of black luminaries: President Obama, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela, among others.
Bamberg, like many of his cohorts, works for a law firm with a caseload far more mundane than what lands him on TV. Between days-long stints in Charlotte last month, he was back by his office in Orangeburg, S.C., handling depositions over a car accident injury case.
David Harris, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh whose research focuses on police, said that kind of workload reflects a growing pattern — personal injury attorneys gravitating toward police shootings.
“You can learn civil rights law to help you, but you have to be a skilled trial lawyer to be the person who can represent these cases and bring them to trial,” he said.
Though there’s nothing new about lawyers taking on police cases, Harris said, the style, breadth and sophistication of their public battles has grown bigger, aided in part by social media.
"What you are attempting to do is influence the climate of public opinion for any eventual case. That's what these guys are there for. Families may get them for ancillary things, too, like acting as spokespeople, but they are really there to set things up," he said. "Families have always done this, but not so quickly. The whole environment is moving faster than before, and people are rising to the top."
Lawsuits alleging police misconduct are notoriously hard to settle or win, though there have been notable exceptions in recent years.
In Baltimore, the city approved a $6.4-million settlement for Freddie Gray's family while the criminal cases against officers charged in Gray’s death fell apart. New York settled with Eric Garner’s family for $5.9 million, though the officer who put Garner in the chokehold that killed him faced no charges. In Ferguson, Mo., where the U.S. Justice Departmentcleared an officer of wrongdoing in Michael Brown's shooting death, a civil trial is pending.
“Until a few years ago, it wasn’t a very appealing area for many lawyers,” said Chris Stewart, an Atlanta attorney who recruited Bamberg to work on the Walter Scott and Sterling cases. “These cases are built to favor police and cities because there are so many immunity issues and caps on damages.”
Perhaps the best known attorney in the field is Benjamin Crump, who rose to fame representing the family of Trayvon Martin, the teenager who was shot dead in 2012 by George Zimmerman in Sanford, Fla. Last month, Crump was on national TV again as he spoke alongside the family of Terence Crutcher, an unarmed black man who was fatally shot by a white officer after Crutcher’s car broke down on a road in Tulsa, Okla.
The growing prominence of lawyers specializing in police shootings also has raised questions, with some activists and police quietly suggesting that money is their sole pursuit.
Brittany Packnett, a St. Louis activist who helped organized protests in Ferguson and is on the President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing, said she doesn’t buy that theory.
“I don’t think this is a space for ambulance chasers. I think it’s a phenomenon of black lawyers who understand, and who will step out on cases like this given that a lot of big law firms will not touch them. They’re playing a critical role in the movement,” said Packnett.
Bamberg, who is black, said the cases “just aren’t ones that you really do if you are in it for the money.”
Some of the cases, however, result in big payouts. Bamberg was on a team that won a $6.5-million civil settlement from the city of North Charleston, S.C., for the family of Walter Scott, a black man who was shot by a white officer as he fled a traffic stop.
At 29, Bamberg also serves in the South Carolina House of Representatives and was among the lawmakers who successfully pushed to remove the Confederate flag from the state house grounds. The son of police officers and a gun owner who grew up in the countryside with only aunts and uncles as his neighbors, Bamberg lives with his Belgian Malinois dogs, a breed often used in police K-9 units.
In the Keith Scott case, when Charlotte police refused to release dashboard and body camera video of the shooting, Bamberg's team sent out video shot by Scott's wife to force the police chief’s hand.
It worked. The chief released dash and body camera videos that totaled just over 3 minutes. Lawyers called for more footage. The back-and-forth has meant a war of leaks to the media — from police about Scott's criminal background and from lawyers about police policies.
The feud between the police and family lawyers over the shooting has been ongoing, with new moves weekly or even daily.
Police say they found Scott rolling a marijuana blunt and holding a gun while parked at his apartment complex on Sept. 20, leading to a confrontation during which he got out of his car, refused orders to drop his gun and was shot by an officer who felt threatened. They also say police recovered a loaded gun with Scott’s fingerprints along with an ankle holster.
Family lawyers say Scott had a traumatic brain injury, was not holding a gun and posed no threat as he slowly backed away from police after exiting his truck. Police and family videos don't clearly prove either story.
In a news conference in early October after the release of more than an hour of additional police videos, Bamberg invoked other men killed by police.
“I’ve dealt with it with Walter Scott, I’ve dealt with it with Alton Sterling,” he said. “Does the death he suffered match up with the action that he took?"
"I am not going to try the case in public opinion," Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Kerr Putney replied in a TV interview later that night.
A lawsuit has not been filed yet over Keith Scott’s death, but a trial in the court of public opinion is well underway — with Bamberg at its head.