Justin Bamberg is building a name for himself as the attorney to call after a police shooting, representing three families in high-profile cases across the country.
But the two-term Democratic South Carolina state representative, who shares the same last name as his Lowcountry hometown, is anything but an activist attorney on a personal crusade against law enforcement.
Far from being hostile to the police, Bamberg has been involved intimately with law enforcement his entire life.
His father, Kenneth Bamberg, was police chief of the small town of Blackville and now works as an investigator for the Second Circuit solicitor’s office. His mother Ronda, once an investigator for the Denmark Police Department, works for the Orangeburg County Sheriff’s Department. His brother is a South Carolina state trooper.
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“I don’t know why so many people think you either have to love law enforcement or hate law enforcement, and if you love law enforcement, you have to hate the citizen-concern side,” Bamberg said, recalling the stress at home as a child when one of his parents was called out late at night on police business.
‘I don't know why so many people think you either have to love law enforcement or hate law enforcement.’
— Attorney and state Rep. Justin Bamberg
“As a kid, you worry: When is your parent going to come home?” he said. “When my mom would get called out, or my dad would get called out, the one who was still at home wouldn’t go back to sleep.”
‘Most people’ don’t have video
Instead of going into law enforcement, Bamberg went to USC’s law school and became an attorney, eventually opening an office in his hometown of Bamberg, in rural South Carolina.
The Democrat was elected to the S.C. House of Representatives in 2014, at the age of 27.
A year later, Bamberg helped win a $6.5 million settlement from the city of North Charleston for the family of Walter Scott, who was shot in the back and killed by a city police officer while running from a traffic stop. Bamberg was tapped to act as the local attorney for the family by Atlanta-based lawyer Chris Stewart.
“I always find reliable local counsel whenever I take on a case,” Stewart said. “He just came highly recommended from the people I talked to.”
That impression was reinforced when Stewart and Bamberg first met.
It was 2 a.m, when Stewart arrived in South Carolina to meet the Scott family for the first time. Bamberg was there. “I literally called, and he hopped in the car,” Stewart said.
The North Charleston case surged into the national spotlight because of a bystander’s video, showing Scott being shot by police officer Michael Slager, who later pleaded guilty to violating Scott’s civil rights.
“I literally couldn’t believe it. I had to watch it a hundred times,” Bamberg said. “That is why we have some of the problems that we have – the distrust citizens feel toward law enforcement is because you have guys like that who police these communities, and they do treat people very badly.
‘The distrust citizens feel toward law enforcement is because you have guys like that who police these communities, and they do treat people very badly.’
— Bamberg on former North Charleston police officer Walter Slager
“Unfortunately, when most people have that experience, they don’t have the benefit of a witness video.”
Bamberg contrasts that experience with his father’s reputation as a law-enforcement officer in Blackville, something the younger Bamberg was reminded of during a chance encounter at a college party.
“I had some guys roll up on me at this party and say, ‘Are you Chief Bamberg’s son? Man, your daddy arrested me,’ ” Bamberg recalls. “Then they laughed and we shook hands, and he said, ‘If I have to be arrested by somebody, I want it to be somebody like your dad. He treated us with respect, let us know that we were wrong, and we’re better for it.’ ”
Scott’s shooting also caused Bamberg to think of his brother, a state trooper who pulls over drivers, often on the side of the interstate, miles from any backup. “Is that citizen going to be thinking about my little brother like he’s Michael Slager?” Bamberg asked rhetorically.
‘They want this contentiousness’
Other lawyers might try to excite public opinion after a controversial officer-involved shooting, Bamberg says he tries to act as a bridge between authorities and an angry community.
“You won’t see me and my client with any other organization doing a joint press conference,” he said. “The extremists on both sides of the color spectrum, the police ideological spectrum don’t typically like me because they want this contentiousness, and I don’t do that.”
‘The extremists on both sides of the color spectrum, the police ideological spectrum don't typically like me because they want this contentiousness, and I don’t do that.’
Thomas Dixon, a pastor and community organizer who was active in the North Charleston community as the Scott case played out, saw Bamberg’s balancing efforts up close.
“Justin and Chris do a really good job as attorneys, balancing between respecting the wishes of the family and getting out information that can be disseminated to the community,” Dixon said. “It can be very difficult for an attorney (because) people are saying, ‘We want to know this. What about this?’ And as a necessity of the investigation, you can’t say what all the evidence is.”
Bamberg said his legal work on the Scott case went hand-in-hand with acting as a go-between with activists and community members, on the one hand, and the city of North Charleston and its police department, on the other.
“As an attorney, that’s important to me because this is my state, these are my people,” he said. “So you try to facilitate opening that line of communication, and that goes a long way.
“A very, very large part of why things went the way they went (peacefully in North Charleston) was because of the respect people have for Mama Judy and Walter Sr.,” Bamberg said, referring to Scott’s parents. “That went a very long way to keeping things calm and peaceful.”
‘Law enforcement doesn’t always mess up’
Bamberg’s work for the Scotts has brought him into other cases involving controversial police shootings.
Along with Stewart, Bamberg is representing the family of Alton Sterling, an African-American killed by police in Baton Rouge, La.
No charges were filed against the officers in Sterling’s death, and Bamberg is bringing a civil suit against the city.
From his small, one-man law office in Bamberg, the sophomore lawmaker is also working on behalf of the family of Keith Scott, a S.C. man whose shooting death at the hands of Charlotte, N.C., police set off rioting last summer.
Charlotte’s police department says that shooting was justified. However, Charlotte’s citizens review board found “substantial evidence of error” in that ruling, and, next month, Bamberg will take part in a hearing before that board.
“They want to hear additional evidentiary testimony because they feel like the police department could have made the wrong decision.” Bamberg said. “We’re going to wait for that to conclude, and then we’re going to resume discussions with the city of Charlotte about resolving things. And if not, we’re going to file a lawsuit.”
As Bamberg’s national profile has risen, he has received more and more offers to take part in other cases against law enforcement.
“Some of it is name recognition,” he said. “Some people say we like the way you carry yourselves or speak about these topics. … I turn down most of the calls I get because law enforcement doesn’t always mess up.”
Bamberg has sympathy for law enforcement officers, arguing the state of South Carolina needs to put more money into training and resources for local departments. He also has represented officers in workers’ compensation cases, adding they need more support after finding themselves in traumatic situations.
“I have seen first hand the result of having to shoot somebody,” he said. “I can remember one night as a kid, my mother came home, and someone had to shoot somebody on the scene of something, and I just remember her crying and crying and crying, and she wasn’t even the one who pulled the trigger.”
‘Don’t abandon your community’
Bamberg’s success makes him the second representative from Bamberg County’s District 90 to take a star turn in the national limelight. In the S.C. House, Bamberg succeeded fellow Democrat Bakari Sellers, a law school classmate of Bamberg’s who now is a CNN commentator.
“It’s something in the water,” Sellers jokes, adding he thinks his success and Bamberg’s helps their rural district. “Whenever you get (attention) it shines a light on an area the Legislature ignores. Kids realize you can grow up and be something.”
Whatever the future brings, Bamberg says he always will keep his main office in his namesake town.
“I’ve had people ask me, ‘Why did you put your law office in Bamberg? You could put it anywhere and people would call,’ ” he says. “I live in an area where it’s important, when you have a little bit of success, that you don’t abandon your community. This community made me who I am, and there are a lot of people who invested in me.”
‘It's important, when you have a little bit of success, that you don't abandon your community. This community made me who I am, and there are a lot of people who invested in me.’
The two-term state representative and attorney
Born: Fort Riley, Kan., where his parents were deployed
Education: University of South Carolina, 2009; USC Law School, 2011
Career: Member, S.C. House of Representatives; attorney, Bamberg Legal in Bamberg; formerly with the Lanier and Burroughs law firm in Orangeburg and the Hood Law Firm in Charleston