Civil rights attorney Brian Dunn has been around long enough to see judges and juries shift their attitude about police officers.
The Cochran Firm California’s managing partner, Brian T. Dunn, has represented more than 200 victims of police misconduct since 1995.
“I have been at the same job for my whole career,” Dunn said. “Most of my cases involve police shootings, and I’d say probably three out of four of those involve death – maybe more like 60%.”
The civil rights attorney and Los Angeles native attended UC Berkeley before enrolling in the University of Michigan Law School. Dunn knew early he did not share a common goal with most other law students.
“I didn’t feel like I fit in there,” he said.
So Dunn asked a personal injury attorney at his church for guidance.
“I talked to him about what I was interested in,” Dunn recalled. “And I think, generally, it sounded like civil rights cases, but I didn’t know that’s what it was called.”
Dunn said the lawyer he spoke with told him there was only one civil rights attorney worth working under: Johnnie L. Cochran Jr.
“We found uphill battles,” Dunn said, reminiscing about the early days with Cochran. “We were dealing with a belief system that was held by many judges and most jurors, and that belief system held that police officers did not lie – or that they almost always told the truth – and that they were true, honorable protectors of whatever was good in our society.”
Dunn recalled more than a few instances when a verdict came down strictly on racial lines. One in particular sticks with him. Two out of the nine jurors were African American, and when they came out, Dunn said he already knew the verdict because they were both crying.
As a young litigator, “It haunts you in a way that you might not have the experience and the maturity to handle,” Dunn said. “I look at the events of those days, and I wish I could tell myself, ‘Hang in there. You’re on the right path. Things are going to change.'”
Dunn said that change started to happen about five years ago. He likened it to a light suddenly switching on and said both judges and juries seemed to shift their perspectives. He noticed more receptivity to his claims.
“If you’re a person of color of a certain age, you understand at least what police are capable of doing, because they’ve either done it to you or you’ve seen it happen or it’s happened in your family,” Dunn explained.
“But a lot of people’s experiences are based on what they’ve directly seen with their two eyes, and a lot of people just haven’t seen police do anything dishonest or immoral or brutal or violent or cruel,” he continued. “Their experience has been the exact opposite, and the idea that a person can actually look at the world through another person’s eyes is a very heavy concept.”
He credits this shift to social consciousness rising dramatically on a national level, due to high-profile cases, such as Eric Garner in New York and Tamir Rice in Ohio.
“Now any person with a cell phone can hit a couple of buttons and capture a quality video, and you have digital cameras that are on residences and on businesses. They’ve captured a lot of these images, and some of them are very hard to unsee,” Dunn said. “It’s as if there’s a segment of the population that’s saying, ‘See, we told you.’ The other segment of the population is not saying, ‘You’re a liar.’ What they’re saying is, ‘Wow, we didn’t know.'”
In one ongoing case, Dunn is representing Darnell Hicks, a youth football coach who Dunn said was falsely accused of shooting and injuring a 24-year-old male deputy and a 31-year-old female deputy. The two Los Angeles County deputy sheriffs were critically injured after being approached at their patrol vehicle by a shooter who opened fire outside the Metro Blue Line station in Compton in September.
“This is a completely blameless individual that somehow got tied up to this really, really heinous crime,” Dunn said.
Although no suspect had been formally identified by law enforcement, Hicks’ drivers license photo was posted on social media in connection with the crime, according to Dunn. The question is how was the government-issued photo obtained and how did it end up online?
“This is a man that had no criminal history – none,” Dunn said. “The majority of black men have no criminal history.”
The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department later clarified Hicks was not a suspect. However, Dunn said their description of the suspect being a dark-skinned man was too vague, and it put African-American men like Hicks at risk of wrongful accusations.
Dunn also represented the family of Ryan Twyman in a recent federal lawsuit that settled for $3.9 million. Twyman, an unarmed man from Compton, was fatally shot by Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department deputies in June 2019.
“The manner in which he lost his life is almost shockingly similar to so many cases that I’ve had with one exception: It was caught on video,” said Dunn, who later noted law enforcement officers are not supposed to shoot into a car for safety reasons.
Twyman’s Kia Forte was, however, shot into 34 times, according to Dunn. Rather than calling for backup, as is standard, Dunn said the two deputies involved “chose the path of escalation as opposed to de-escalation.”
During the May and June 2020 protests, Twyman’s name was chanted by demonstrators in Southern California along with George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
“It is a wonderful vindication to see people, especially young people, in the streets carrying signs,” Dunn said. “It is a wonderful vindication to see a predominantly white, 20-something crowd chanting, ‘Black Lives Matter.’ Those are wonderful things.”
Dunn said, for him, every day is a reward.
“Even when we were having problems getting our point across to juries, problems that existed before the issue of police misconduct had reached a critical mass in our nation, I loved doing this. This is what I’m supposed to do,” Dunn said. “I would do it for free if it would pay the bills. In fact, I did, involuntarily, do it for free for a long time, but the reward is the work itself, and I’m starting to put that in perspective now.”
Carpenter, Rothans & Dumont LLP partner Steven J. Rothans described Dunn as an extremely competent, very aggressive attorney at the top of his game.
“When I have a case against him, and we’ve had a dozen or more cases over the years, I’ve got to be extra prepared because I know Brian’s going to know his file better than anyone,” Rothans said. “He’s a gentleman lawyer in that he follows the rules of civility. … We rarely agree on issues, but we agree to disagree, and we can cooperate and get along in the stress of litigation that way.”
Over the last two decades, Rothans said Dunn has been nothing but a class act in and out of court.
“He is going to fight like hell, and he’s going to be aggressive and a formidable opponent in litigation,” Rothans said. “But at the end of the day, he’s a great human being.”
Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith LLP partner and co-chair of the firm’s general liability practice, Dana A. Fox, has litigated about a dozen cases against Dunn over the last quarter century.
“In every instance, Brian has been the consummate professional,” Fox said. “His word is solid, and if he gives you his word, you can take it to the bank. … If I needed help, Brian is one of the guys I could call. I really could.”