By Carlos Avalos
The Fontana police department has been getting hammered with civil lawsuits and allegations of racism, nepotism, and corruption in the past few months, with these recent allegations coming not from residents of Fontana, but from officers, current and former, on the force. At issue are charges made by a handful of officers who contradict the department’s claim that its members serve the public with the utmost integrity. In reality, they say, the Fontana Police Department is an institution that targets minorities for traffic stops, has a white supremacist culture, uses excessive force, falsifies documents, and tampers with evidence.
Now comes the possibility that the spotlight being focused on the controversy in the Fontana Police Department will be wielded by a civilian.
In its February 3 edition, the Sentinel reported on the double indignity that was visited upon Fontana resident Jimmy Earl Burelson in 1994. The first indignity to which Jimmy Burelson was subjected came at the hands of a person or persons unknown, who murdered him and left him behind the Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise on Sierra Avenue. The second indignity came after he was dead, before or while he was transported, as are all murder victims in San Bernardino County, to the San Bernardino County Morgue, where an autopsy was conducted. What was out of the ordinary, indeed off the charts out of the ordinary, in Burleson’s case was that by the time he was on the autopsy table his corpse was tampered with. A chicken bone was placed in his hand and a picture of him was taken while the autopsy was yet being conducted. Most have drawn the inference that the chicken bone was placed in his hand in a joking manner to show that Mr. Burelson, an African American, did not want to let go of a piece of chicken when he was killed.
An implication of this, at least for some, is that the Fontana Police Department has racist overtones in its makeup. Another is that the San Bernardino County Coroner’s Office was complicit in Burelson’s desecration, although that is less certain. Yet another is that the Fontana Police Department was cavalier in preserving the integrity of evidence, to say nothing of being lax or negligent with regard to training, tact and compassion.
The Sentinel recently reached and interviewed one of Jimmy Earl Burelson’s living relatives, his stepsister Lurline Davis. Born and raised in Blythe on the Colorado River, Davis recently celebrated her 71st birthday. She is retired after 31 years as a dispatcher and records clerk for the Blythe Police Department. She told the Sentinel that “law enforcement was not something I expected to make a career out of,” but that through a government program she had been given an internship with the police department and upon the completion of her training, the Blythe Police Department kept her on for a few years before offering her a fulltime position.
When asked about her thoughts and observations about police officers generally and the standard to which they should be held, Davis told the Sentinel that “being a dispatcher, I dealt with many people before the police officers did, and worked and lived my whole life with one simple but cliché philosophy, which is ‘Treat others the way you want to be treated.’” She also said that “because of the nature of law enforcement and how officers are sworn to protect and serve the community, they need to have a good moral compass.” She told the Sentinel that no one is perfect and that extends to police officers, but being a police officer brings with it special privileges the normal citizen is not afforded, and if a police officer abuses that trust and responsibility, it is a recipe for disaster. A prime example of this, she said, was the horrible treatment accorded her brother.
Davis said she detected, as a result of the more than three decades she spent in her role as a dispatcher, that “Not all police officers treat everyone the same.” Davis said one thing that stuck with her was her introduction to a male recruit fresh out of the academy who was hired by the Blythe Police Department. Davis said her impression was that the academy experience and training the young man received made him believe that as soon as he put on his uniform he occupied a station above the normal person and was able to live his life by a different set of rules because of the position that he had attained.
Davis conveyed to the recruit that “Obviously, the young man had not learned anything in his training to become a police officer, and that just because he was wearing a police uniform meant absolutely nothing.” Unfortunately, Davis observed, the prevalence of that attitude within police culture and a portion of the populace in general equates to a police uniform becoming “somewhat of a get out of jail free card,” and that as a result she had seen, during her years on the force, “this breeding in decades and decades of young people an attitude in which they do not respect, like, or trust law enforcement.” Officers were “tough with young people,” she said, and they were unconcerned about any sort of repercussions because they knew nothing would be done to them, no matter how they treated a person they encountered. She said it was her perception that most officers when in uniform and behind a badge act totally differently than they do in their civilian lives. She said the reason for this was because many of them are not mature enough to have the responsibility the position entails, and are not capable of dealing with even a little bit of power and authority.
Overall, Davis said, both while she was yet working in law enforcement and now, she “unfortunately” held the view that the impact of police on society is more negative than positive, that officers tend to be more hurtful than helpful and more absorbed with their position in power than serving the citizenry and that law enforcement as an institution is more destructive than it is curative or even palliative. She said that in her early years as a police department employee, most officers had been drawn to the profession out of a genuine desire to achieve the greater good, not because it was a family tradition or simply to receive a paycheck or to cash in on the benefits that are now a standard perquisite of the profession.
With regard to Jimmy Earl Burelson, Davis said he was her “stepbrother,” but was also actually her half-cousin. Davis and Burelson had different fathers, and Davis’s mother raised him from his infancy. Mrs. Davis’s mother was actually his aunt, she said. Mr. Burleson’s niece, Alica Davis, was also at the interview, and the Sentinel asked her to speak about her uncle. She said she had known him her entire life and that he was a good guy, but just like anyone, had issues. Alica said he was not a troublemaker but was very protective of his family and did not let anyone take advantage of him.
Whatever her uncle’s difficulties and status, Alica said he did not deserve to be treated how he was by the Fontana Police Department. Alica said that he was always kind, loving, and nurturing with her, and always was playing with her and entertaining her. The Sentinel then asked Alica how she heard about the death of her uncle. She said that she remembered the Fontana P.D. telling the family that Mr. Burelson had gotten out of jail and had no transportation and was beaten up by a group of people and that is how he died. Alica said her family knows something untoward occurred. Despite whatever her uncle was going through, he always made it home safe and knew how to take care of himself, she said.
When she was shown a photo of her uncle on the coroner’s room examining table, a tear rolled down her cheek as she struggled to comprehend the desecration he had been submitted to. “I don’t understand how someone could do that to another human being, regardless of what color of skin a person is,” she said, adding that the most apt word to describe the way the Fontana Police Department treated her uncle is “evil.”.
When the Sentinel asked about the night Jimmy Burelson was murdered, Alica replied “We heard three different stories about how he died. I can’t remember two of them in all of the detail. The story I remember was that he got out of jail and there was no transportation, and he was beaten up. Our family could not get a straight story from the Fontana Police Department or the San Bernardino County Coroner’s Office of how he died.”
There is some significance to this last point. Jimmy Burelson’s body was altered – either at the scene where his body was found or on its way to the coroner’s office. A half eaten fried chicken leg was placed in his hand. The body of the dead man, a prime piece of evidence in the case, was tampered with. Did this contribute to the subsequent inability to determine what had happened and the failure to find Jimmy Burelson’s killer? Was his family not told about what had been learned about his death because the department did not know how he had been killed? Or was the department’s reticence due to embarrassment over the unprofessional desecration of his body that followed his death? Was something being hidden? Did a member of the Fontana Police Department kill him as the result of an unjustifiable use of force that has never been acknowledged? Foul play was certainly involved. Who perpetrated it? Lurline Davis said she is going to find out what happened and why.
Mrs. Davis was found by pastors in the Fontana community, who provided her with the February 3 edition of the Sentinel with the photo of her brother upon the coroner’s examining table. Until that time, Davis had no idea that her brother was treated the way he had been by the Fontana Police Department. She said the disrespect that was shown toward her brother’s corpse was a blot upon the Fontana Police Department, a demonstration that at least some of its members consider themselves about the law, an indication of a lack of professionalism, decency and intelligence, and something she hopes the perpetrator is losing sleep over now that the photo has become an exhibit in a court case brought by two of the department’s officers against the department and the City of Fontana. She was critical of the coroner’s office for allowing a member or members of the Fontana Police Department to stage the chicken leg photo.
Lurline Davis also shared that Jimmy Burelson’s father, Frank Burelson, was killed while he was in jail. She said she believes that what happened to her brother is not an isolated incident or the first time something like this has happened in San Bernardino County, but a reflection of the low standards within many local law enforcement agencies. Noting that there is no statute of limitations on murder, she said she is weighing her options with regard to a lawsuit against the Fontana Police Department and the San Bernardino County Coroner’s Office to force an accounting of the deliberate destruction of evidence that would have shed light on her brother’s murder.
By Carlos Avalos