Police Brutality and Accountability: A Film We Haven't Seen Yet

Adrian Burrell speaking at a press conference outside Vallejo City Hall, Feb. 28, 2019. (Pendarvis Harshaw/KQED)

Adrian Burrell could name his first unofficial documentary film Police Accountability, with the subtitle I Could’ve Been Killed While Filming This.

In actuality, Burrell hasn’t released a documentary film yet. He worked as an associate producer on the 2013 film Licks, and he has one or two documentaries of his own set to drop later this year. That's amidst getting accepted to Stanford’s MFA program, as well as UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. He's also wrapping up a photo exhibition, Mama's Babies: An Account of Black Matriarchy in America, which runs through March 6 at 1090 Gallery in San Francisco.

But Burrell’s unofficial first documentary has been shared pretty widely over the past few weeks. It takes place in late January of this year, when Burrell stepped out of his house and encountered Vallejo Police Department officer David McLaughlin in his driveway, conducting a traffic stop of his cousin. Attempting to be vigilant and create his own document of the account, Burrell took out his phone and began filming the interaction from his front porch.

“I was very lucky in my situation,” Burrell told me. “The way I pulled out my phone, and talked calmly. The whole time I was just thinking: ‘Let me do everything to make myself not threatening... I’m doing everything to make this person with the gun and the authority not scared.’”

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Once Burrell began filming, the officer’s attention was diverted from Burrell’s cousin to Burrell. Video shows the officer approaching Burrell; you can hear commotion between the two as the camera shakes and eventually falls, and then the video cuts off. That’s when McLaughlin reportedly tackled Burrell and handcuffed the young man.

After being ushered into the patrol car, Burrell identified himself as a former Marine. “I told him that my shoulder was hurting," Burrell told me. "‘I have a prior injury from the military, could you handcuff me from the front?’”

Burrell, whose car was parked in the driveway with a United States Marine Corps sticker on the back bumper, said the officer changed his tone, and told him that they “don’t do that to servicemen.” The officer then reportedly released him from the cuffs, and thanked Burrell for his service.

Adrian Burrell at the opening of his photography exhibition, 'Mama's Babies,' at 1090 Gallery in San Francisco.
Adrian Burrell at the opening of his photography exhibition, 'Mama's Babies,' at 1090 Gallery in San Francisco. (Courtesy Adrian Burrell)

Burrell lived to tell his story. The officer went on with his job, as he's done in the past—when he was reportedly sued for civil rights violations, or when he was one of four officers who shot and killed a man in Richmond, or when he held a man at gunpoint and allegedly falsified reports to claim he was in possession of a controlled substance. Or even when he was filmed pulling a gun on someone in Walnut Creek, an incident occurring while McLaughlin was off duty.

Imagine if that officer were held accountable for his actions. Burrell, who has found legal representation from the law offices of John Burris, wants to see that a reality.

Earlier this month, Burris’ office filed a class-action lawsuit against the Vallejo Police Department—a suit that includes the high-profile case of the killing of Willie McCoy, who was shot an estimated 25 times after officers found him asleep in a parked car with a gun on his lap on Feb. 9.

During a press conference, Burris said, “The Willie McCoy death is one of the most egregious effects of police brutality I’ve ever seen. This young man was shot to pieces; over 25 times he was shot. He wasn’t even given an opportunity to live.”

A scene from Adrian Burrell's upcoming documentary 'Cousins,' shot in Oakland.
A scene from Adrian Burrell's upcoming documentary 'Cousins,' shot in Oakland. (Adrian Burrell)

Burris then addressed Adrian Burrell’s altercation with an officer—noting the multiple accounts of previous violations by the officer at the center of Burrell's case. “It raises the question of what kind of accountability the department has with individual officers,” said Burris.

“As long as an officer gets away with it,” he added, “then they feel like they’re entitled to engage in this kind of misconduct.”

When I talked with Burrell, he told me that he believes that the lack of accountability for cases of police brutality is a deeply rooted systematic issue—much deeper than just one officer, or even one department.

He acknowledged that there are some small immediate actions that could move his community toward a remedy, like Vallejo organizing an external police oversight commission. Burrell also suggested allowing the community to have a say in who gets hired to police the community—for example, requiring potential officers to spend time at a local nonprofit or center, and then letting the community members vote on their ability to police the neighborhood.

That may seem like a far-fetched idea to throw out there. But something has to change.

Adrian Burrell in 2013.
Adrian Burrell, camera in hand, in 2013.

“California has people on both sides who care,” Burrell told me, “but the state has a lot of issues that bleed underneath the surface, and this is one of those things.”

I hear him. Police brutality, racism and lack of accountability are a part of a deeply rooted structure that's foundational in this land we call America. And yeah, even fake-ass “liberal” Northern California is a part of America too, no matter how much people want to rebrand it.

There are these lofty ideas of going in different directions when it comes to policing, but they're usually in conflict with how the infrastructure innately works.

“People want to make changes,” said Burrell. “But at the end of the day, the railroad goes north, south, east, and west.”

Adrian Burrell outside of Vallejo City Hall.
Adrian Burrell outside of Vallejo City Hall. (Pendarvis Harshaw/KQED)

I got off the phone and my train of thought took me from station to station, places where police brutality or malpractice had occurred as of late, and accountability was nowhere to be found.

I thought about the railroad museum in Sacramento, and how no too far from it last week, the District Attorney announced that there would be no charges for the officer who shot and killed Stephon Clark last year.

Further down Amtrak's Capitol Corridor route, in my hometown of Oakland, news just came out revealing that Judge Warsaw, the Federal Judge overseeing the Oakland Police Department, called out current Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick for mishandling a police shooting of Joshua Pawlik last year.

A rare instance of some form of police accountability was brought about last year with the passing of SB 1421, a bill allowing public access to records of police officers' misconduct and shootings. It's the same bill that the SF Police Union and a gang of other departments across the state, as well as the state's Attorney General Xavier Becerra, are blocking the enforcement of. Which, in turn, has caused media outlets to file lawsuits, including KQED.

From Adrian Burrell's 'Mama's Babies' exhibition at 1090 Gallery in San Francisco.
From Adrian Burrell's 'Mama's Babies' exhibition at 1090 Gallery in San Francisco. (Adrian Burrell)

I thought about the people standing behind Adrian when he spoke in front of Vallejo City Hall, holding signs with the names of loved ones who had killed by law enforcement. The majority of those killed were men of color, while a lot of the people holding signs were women of color.

Mothers. Sisters. And the signs they held all communicated the same request: accountability.

There are campaigns, external review boards, federal monitors, chest cameras, dash cameras and even citizens using their own cameras, the question remains: how can we hold officers accountable for instances of police misconduct?

Even with the introduction of AB 392, a bill working its way through the state's assembly which would change the allowed procedure for when an officer can use deadly force, and help hold officers accountable, I find it hard to have hope.

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Because even though it sounds good, as we've seen time and time again, that "light at the end of the tunnel" could very well be the same old train coming. For Adrian. For so many mother's sons. For all of us.

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