The successful trial lawyer was once an undercover narcotics cop in Detroit
The scene unfolds at sudden-death speed. Bernard Taylor, an undercover cop in 1970s Detroit, enters a darkened house with a shotgun to make a bust. From the front room a rifle is fired, but—as will be discovered later—gunpowder pulverizes the bullet in the chamber and the old .22 simply spits tiny bits of lead and powder off the bill of Taylor’s cap and into his eye. Taylor, hardly blinking, levels his shotgun. At that moment, he hears children’s voices coming from the gloom behind the shooter.
“I didn’t shoot,” says Taylor, now a partner at Alston & Bird in Atlanta, where for the past 25 years he’s worked as a trial lawyer. “I didn’t want to take a chance on hitting those kids. So I made the guy drop his gun and surrender. I was really fortunate. It could have been a disaster.” As it turned out, he was named police officer of the year.
“Funny how life is,” he adds.
Yeah, funny. Also sad, thrilling, horrifying—Taylor’s life would make a hell of a movie: How an African-American foster child, whose mother went to prison for reasons he can’t or won’t recall, grows up to become an undercover narcotics detective, putting away drug kingpins and corrupt cops, then leaves the force to become a defense attorney working commercial litigation, products liability and toxic tort lawsuits. Someone call Sidney Lumet.
But Taylor, who considers himself a movie buff (Doctor Zhivago and 2001: A Space Odyssey are his favorites), isn’t comfortable talking about the first half of his life. At the same time, he’s too polite to refuse a writer’s nagging questions.
“My colleagues know that I was a police officer, they know I worked undercover, but I never say much to them about it,” he says.
Others are less reticent.
“BT was a selfless and heroic cop, and I was glad he got out when he did, because I truly believe he would have been killed,” says Justin Ravitz, an avowed Marxist who became a legendary criminal court judge in Detroit. “BT literally was the Frank Serpico of the Detroit Police Department.”
Serpico, the detective who exposed rampant corruption in the New York police department, became famous after the release of the 1973 film Serpico starring Al Pacino. Taylor has achieved his fame as a lawyer.
He’s successfully represented corporate giants, chaired his firm’s products liability group and management committee, and in 2006, was named a fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers. He was asked to deliver an acceptance speech on behalf of all inductees, including John Roberts, chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
A model citizen who volunteers for UNICEF and is president of the Dekalb County chapter of 100 Black Men of America, Taylor is the father of three daughters and one son: Bernard Taylor II, a trial lawyer in Chicago.
Taylor has distanced himself from what he calls “old demons”; but when colleagues talk about Taylor’s renowned courtroom unflappability, they inevitably bring up his past.
“Given Bernard’s history, it’s almost cheating when it comes to what he brings to the table,” says Gino Brogdon, a former Fulton County Superior Court judge and former Alston & Bird attorney, who recently helped launch Brogdon, Davis & Adams in Atlanta.
“Here is a guy who was an undercover cop in the ’70s. If you weren’t prepared doing the stuff he did, you die. It wasn’t pretty. He’s seen some terrible things—things that most of us would not be able to withstand mentally. He’s had the cold steel of a weapon pressed against his temple. He’s been shot.
“So there is nothing you can do in a courtroom to ruffle his feathers. Nothing.”
Brogdon didn’t know Taylor the cop, but he considers Taylor the lawyer his best friend and mentor, and compares him to Walter Payton, the late NFL running back.
“Payton had a workout that very few people could withstand, but everybody appreciated his beauty on Sunday,” Brogdon says. “Bernard is the Payton of trial work. He wins not only because of his superior talent in the courtroom, but because he works harder in the dark than any lawyer who ever picked up a briefcase.”
“I think it’s partly his early life training as a police officer,” adds Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Leah Sears, a one-time Alston & Bird colleague. “But it’s his character that allowed him to handle the sort of undercover work he was doing. He once told me—one of the few times he’s been willing to talk about it—that when he was working undercover he stumbled on things that just made him want to throw up. But it never made him unsteady.”
It did, however, make him leave his hometown.
“Detroit was a wonderful place to live in the 1950s,” Taylor remembers. “We had about 1.6 million people living there [and] it was very ethnically diverse. I grew up in a predominantly African-American neighborhood that was right next to a Polish-American neighborhood, which was right next to a German neighborhood, which was next to an Italian neighborhood, and so on.”
As a teen, he lived in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood and went to a predominantly Jewish school: Mumford High, made famous by the T-shirt Eddie Murphy later wore in Beverly Hills Cop.
Taylor, 58, spent the first seven years of his life in foster care before moving in with his grandmother, who had already raised 14 kids. Later, his aunt, Dorothy Perkins, took care of him. “[She was] the first person who showed me that I could do something with my life if I wanted to,” he says.
He wanted to be a cop.
“I think it was my mother’s situation that caused me to go out and do something in law enforcement,” says Taylor.
After graduating from the academy, Taylor joined the police department in 1970. It was a dangerous time: 26 Detroit police officers were killed while on duty during the 1970s.
“It was not unusual for a policeman a month to be killed during some stretches,” Taylor says. “That was a different era. It was rough, and the reason it was rough was because of narcotics—specifically, because of heroin. A few of us wanted to get involved to try and solve the problem.”
He was a patrolman for less than a year before volunteering to work undercover, cooperating with federal officers on special assignments.
“Some of the work I did was just hanging out in the streets, figuring out where the dope houses were, figuring out ways to get known in the community, ingratiating yourself to whoever was running the dope house, then buying drugs and making busts.”
Taylor and his comrades would spend a long time, sometimes up to a year, studying an organization, developing trust, joining the gang, then taking it down.
“You tried to infiltrate the organization, and typically that was through a confidential informant of some kind,” Taylor says. “You’d be part of the organization for six months to a year maybe. Most of the time, for me, I played the part of someone who had my own organization, or who was financing an organization. I was a buyer. But part of the process meant you socialized a lot, you’d live in the area. This was deep cover.”
Posing as a friendly buyer helped Taylor avoid having to sample the drugs. “Now, did I ever end up with a contact high from marijuana smoke? Oh yeah, because that was everywhere,” Taylor says.
It wasn’t easy for all of the obvious reasons. “The kind of work I was doing, you have to befriend people knowing that you’re lying to them,” Taylor says. “That was tough.”
He recalls two incidents where informants were murdered. Taylor had his own share of close calls, too.
“There was this one time when my cover [as an out-of-town drug dealer] was almost blown. I was going to meet with a substantial drug wholesaler who lived in the suburbs but wanted to meet me in the Detroit projects,” Taylor remembers.
“I arrived in a cab, supposedly coming from the airport. For whatever reason, the guy who was supposed to drive the cab didn’t make it and the guy they substituted, a federal agent, jumped in the cab wearing a suit and tie. He didn’t look like a cab driver. The guy I was meeting said he was uncomfortable with the driver. The implication was, they were going to deal with me harshly if the driver didn’t move on.”
The dealer held a gun to Taylor’s head and threatened to shoot if the cabbie didn’t leave. Taylor stayed in character and paid the driver, who left. The investigation went on. The dealer was later arrested.
After working a few years as an undercover detective, Taylor became the supervisor of a high-stakes deep cover operation, in which—a la The Departed—undercover candidates were plucked from the police academy before actually entering the officer rolls.
The Covert Operations Group was created to fight the city’s heroin epidemic while ferreting out police corruption. It worked closely with internal affairs.
“This was serious, dangerous work,” Taylor says, “because we were uncovering information that could be threatening to some important people. We operated without policemen or the people on the street knowing what we were doing.”
“You didn’t know who to trust,” says Dr. Isaiah ‘Ike’ McKinnon, an internal affairs officer who recruited Taylor to join an investigation that led to the top of Detroit’s political ladder—including Willie Clyde Volsan, brother-in-law of Detroit Mayor Coleman Young.
Only a handful of people were supposed to know about the Covert Operations Group—Taylor, McKinnon, the officers working deep cover, and chief of police William Hart, who controlled the money undercover cops used to buy drugs—but, McKinnon says, “I can recall reporting everything that was part of my investigation to a boss who I assumed was a good person, only to find out he was reporting everything I gave him to the ultimate source: the mayor.”
McKinnon, now a professor of education and human services at the University of Detroit Mercy, adds, “There were so many offshoots in that investigation. It was like a hand with many fingers, each one pointing in a different direction. Then you climb up to the arm and find out that it’s controlling different parts of each finger. It was scary.”
Safety within and without the department was a constant concern. Ravitz, the criminal court judge who helped initiate the operation, saw how it was getting to Taylor.
“As he got higher and higher [in the investigation] I could see that he was clearly nervous,” Ravitz says. “I knew that the third floor of the department, the chief’s floor, had been stopping their support. It was difficult to get money to buy narcotics. The third floor was pulling back, and we were getting suspicious.”
As a result of the investigation, James Gulley, a Detroit businessman, was arrested in 1978 with three pounds of heroin and received a life sentence. He died in prison.
But in the end there were too many roadblocks within the department, and Taylor left in 1979; McKinnon followed in 1984.
In 1991, Hart, the police chief under whom Taylor and McKinnon worked, was indicted for stealing $2.6 million from the department’s drug enforcement fund. The following year, Volsan was arrested while introducing corrupt cops to FBI agents posing as drug dealers, and 11 police officers were charged with protecting drug dealers and money launderers.
Taylor doesn’t want to speculate or remark on whether these officers were targeted when he was a cop. Those files are not part of his reading material these days. He simply says, “There was always the suspicion that it went pretty high in the department.”
When Taylor left the police department in 1979, he left it completely, but he left it with a plan. While a cop he earned an undergraduate degree from Wayne State University, and, partly because of a childhood admiration for Thurgood Marshall, and partly because of the encouragement of Ravitz, he went into law.
“I remember an incident in Detroit where some policemen went into a motel and allegedly killed a bunch of people,” Taylor says. “This might have been before I was a police officer. Anyway, I went to the courtroom and observed the lawyers defending these officers. They were so effective. I realized that I wanted to be a trial lawyer. And to show you how naïve I was, I didn’t know there was any other kind.”
After graduating from Vanderbilt University Law School in 1982, he took a job with Jones, Bird and Howell (later Alston & Bird) in Atlanta. He’s been a trial lawyer from day one.
He rarely speaks to anyone from his police days, including his old mentor Ravitz (who died suddenly as we were going to press). McKinnon, his former partner, who later became police chief, expressed surprise and joy that Taylor has done so well, so far away from Detroit. The two former cops haven’t been in contact for years, and Taylor rarely gets back to his hometown. The last time was three years ago.
“I probably could have practiced law in Detroit, but there’s a lot of pain there,” Taylor says. “I didn’t think it would be healthy for me, personally, to go back.”
He may not want to go back, but his mind will replay the scenes from that other life.
“When I look back, it plays like a movie. It doesn’t look like something I did,” he says.
“There are times when I sit in this office and look at all of the stuff going on around me, and I realize how different my life has been from the many people I interact with on a daily basis. And I find it hard to believe I actually lived that life.”