Five Years After Ferguson, St. Louis County’s New Prosecutor Confronts a Racist Criminal Justice System

The 2014 police killing of Michael Brown inspired a nationwide movement to elect progressive prosecutors. Now, Wesley Bell will try to reform St. Louis.

St. Louis County Prosecutor, Wesley Bell poses for a portrait outside the Wellston Resource Center on January 21, 2019 in Wellston, Mo. (Photo: Michael Thomas for The Intercept)
St. Louis County Prosecutor Wesley Bell outside the Wellston Resource Center on Jan. 21, 2019, in Wellston, Mo. Photo: Michael Thomas for The Intercept

Wesley Bell was sworn into office as St. Louis County’s first black prosecutor just after midnight on New Year’s Day, and by the end of his second day on the job, he had ordered a sweeping overhaul of many of the office’s policies.

Effective immediately, he wrote in a detailed interim memo, his office would no longer prosecute the possession of less than 100 grams of marijuana. Prosecutors would end cash bail requests for misdemeanor cases, and they would issue summonses, rather than warrants, for all misdemeanors and class D and E felonies. They would no longer criminally prosecute the failure to pay child support. They would not overcharge defendants to pressure them into pleas, nor would they threaten witnesses to force them to participate in prosecutions. They would not impose further conditions on those failing to appear in court unless they were flight risks, and they would disclose the entirety of their files to defense counsel.

Bell also fired a veteran assistant prosecutor who had been a key figure in the case of Darren Wilson, a Ferguson police officer who shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown in 2014. The case, which after weeks of foot-dragging by police and prosecutors ended with a grand jury declining to indict Wilson, sparked massive protests in Ferguson and across the country. But almost five years later, Brown’s killing also inspired a steadfast movement for racial justice and police accountability, and exposed district attorneys as the most powerful players in the country’s criminal justice system.

Since then, several old-school prosecutors have been voted out of office across the country and replaced by a wave of criminal justice reformers, including in cities as large as Chicago and Philadelphia. In Chicago, Kim Foxx ousted Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez in 2016 after her botched handling of another police killing — that of Laquan McDonald. The grassroots campaign to run Alvarez out of office, and the viral #ByeAnita social media rallying cry that amplified it, became a model to build engagement around prosecutor’s races nationwide. Then, in 2017, Philadelphians elected Larry Krasner — a career criminal defense and civil rights lawyer who had never prosecuted a case but who had sued the Philadelphia Police Department more than 75 times — as their next district attorney. (Other prosecutors who have billed themselves as “progressive,” like former California Attorney General Kamala Harris and Manhattan DA Cy Vance, hardly deserve the title.)

FERGUSON, MO - MARCH 14:  Mia Swisher says a prayer during a visit to a memorial to Michael Brown outside the Canfield Green apartments where he was shot and killed by a police officer last August on March 14, 2015 in Ferguson, Missouri.  The town of Ferguson has experienced many protests, which have often been violent, since Brown's death. On Wednesday evening two police officers were shot while they were securing the Ferguson police station during a protest.  (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Mia Swisher says a prayer at a Michael Brown memorial outside the Canfield Green apartments on March 14, 2015, in Ferguson, Mo.

Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

But the push to put progressive prosecutors into office really took off after Ferguson, where the disastrous investigation of Brown’s killing opened the public’s eyes to prosecutors’ unique power to decide whom and when to prosecute. With Bell’s election, the Ferguson protests’ impact on the politics of criminal justice finally came home to St. Louis County.

“I absolutely feel like I am part of a momentum that’s continuing to grow,” Bell told me in a recent interview, adding that he draws inspiration from Krasner, Foxx, and other progressive prosecutors who preceded him. “I think that we have a real opportunity.”

Now nearly a month into the job, Bell hasn’t slowed down. He announced treatment and diversion programs, in partnership with local health organizations, to address rather than criminalize addiction and mental illness. And after promising voters he would never seek the death penalty, he declared that he would seek life imprisonment in a murder and sexual assault case that took place at a Catholic Supply store and rocked the area last fall.

It’s hard to overstate how radical these changes are in St. Louis County.

If the Ferguson protests made this collection of more than 80 municipalities and suburbs, home to just under a million people, synonymous with police brutality and racism, they also exposed ingrained inequities in a local government system that funds itself on the criminalization of its poor residents, and whose leadership and power structure are starkly unrepresentative of its population. The St. Louis metropolitan area, which includes both the city of St. Louis and St. Louis County, regularly boasts the grim record of being one of the most dangerous in America — though much of the violence happens in a few pockets of the city. Homicides and violent crime have also been on the rise in the county, which like the city is deeply segregated. Many go unsolved.

But other statistics are equally revealing of law enforcement culture in St. Louis County. Missouri has been one of the country’s leading executioners in recent decades, trailing only Texas, but local disparities can be stark within the state. A 2015 study found that a person convicted of homicide in St. Louis County is three times more likely to be executed than someone convicted elsewhere in the state — and 13 times more likely to be executed than a person convicted in St. Louis City. In 2017, there were 530 criminal prosecutions for nonpayment of child support in the county, versus about 40 in the city and 12 on average in other counties across the state.

In the aftermath of the Ferguson protests, the Justice Department issued a damning report denouncing “clear racial disparities” in the ways the county’s police and courts operated. “The evidence shows that discriminatory intent is part of the reason for these disparities,” the report stated, zeroing in on Ferguson. “Over time, Ferguson’s police and municipal court practices have sown deep mistrust between parts of the community and the police department, undermining law enforcement legitimacy among African Americans in particular.”

Three newly elected members of the Ferguson City Council, from left, Brian Fletcher, Ella Jones and Wesley Bell embrace after being sworn in during a monthly meeting of the council Tuesday, April 21, 2015, in Ferguson, Mo. With the election, half of the six-member city council in Ferguson, a town where two-thirds of the 21,000 residents are black, will now be African-American. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

Three newly elected members of the Ferguson City Council, from left, Brian Fletcher, Ella Jones and Wesley Bell, embrace after being sworn on April 21, 2015, in Ferguson, Mo.

Photo: Jeff Roberson/AP

Bell, 44, is the son of a cop and has served as public defender, municipal court prosecutor, and judge. He ran for the Ferguson City Council after the protests and worked on a team that negotiated a federal consent decree following Brown’s killing. “That was a learning experience, working with the Department of Justice and seeing some of these same issues from a different light,” he said. “For the first time, being confronted with the idea that the culture that I was raised in legally did need to change.”

Voters seemed to agree. His campaign against Bob McCulloch — a seven-term incumbent first elected in 1991, when Bell was in high school — seemed improbable at first. But it was propelled by tireless grassroots organizing, a viral #ByeBob social media campaign modeled after Chicago’s #ByeAnita, and the backing of some national players that have prioritized transforming the culture of district attorney’s offices nationwide. His victory in the Democratic primary was both stunning and decisive. With a record turnout, he beat the incumbent by a 14 percent margin.

“There’s a lot of ways to approach a culture change, and that is often times a slower change,” Bell told me in his second week on the job. Yet he seemed to have no interest in taking it slow. His staff was still waiting for building access cards, and packed boxes lined the walls of the office, where a pink print thanked McCulloch for his 27 years of service. But the reforms already underway were transforming an office unaccustomed to change. “I think what we started with is setting clear expectations and making sure that people in this office understand what the policies are,” Bell said.

“He came out of the gate in a way that’s been overt and clear, and he has the support in the community for the stuff he’s moving,” said Montague Simmons, a longtime organizer in St. Louis County. “He’s going to be able to get some stuff done. The question is, what the resistance to that is going to look like.”

CLAYTON, MO - MARCH 13:  Robert P. "Bob" McCulloch, Prosecuting Attorney for St. Louis County speaks to the media during a news conference on March 13, 2017 in Clayton, Missouri. Tension and protest in Ferguson has arisen in response to video footage of slain 18 year-old Michael Brown in a recent documentary. (Photo by Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images)

Bob McCulloch, then-Prosecuting Attorney for St. Louis County, speaks to the media during a news conference on March 13, 2017 in Clayton, Mo.

Photo: Michael Thomas/Getty Images

Resisting Change

Resistance to Bell has already been fierce, a testament in part to the challenge he faces in reforming a system that many key players within the system itself do not want disrupted.

McCulloch, the son of a police officer who was killed in the line of duty, was criticized in the aftermath of the Ferguson protests for being too close to law enforcement. A traditional, tough-on-crime prosecuting attorney who billed himself as “the most experienced prosecutor in the country’s history,” McCulloch never prosecuted a police killing. And he looked a lot like most of the other 2,400 elected district attorneys in the U.S. It’s a remarkably homogeneous group: 96 percent are white, 80 percent are male, and 75 percent run for office unopposed, according to figures provided by the civil rights group Color of Change, which has become one of the leading advocates for prosecutor accountability in recent years.

McCulloch faced few challengers during his tenure, and he was re-elected for a seventh term just days before Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson. His handling of the investigation enraged the community that had come to the streets to protest the killing, but also illuminated the largely unchecked power with which prosecutors operate, as well as their deep connections to law enforcement. Although the next election was years away, many pledged that it would be McCulloch’s last.

McCulloch did not respond to an interview request, nor did Kathi Alizadeh, the lead prosecutor in the Darren Wilson case, whom Bell fired on his second day in office. Bell also fired two other prosecutors, including Ed McSweeney, who had posted on Facebook after the primary that “voters will soon regret what they did.” “My boss was shockingly defeated in Tuesday’s primary after 28 years,” McSweeney wrote in a thread that revealed the panic ensuing in some circles after Bell’s win. “Defeated by a Ferguson councilman with no trial experience.”

Bell declined to comment on the terminations, which he called “pending employee matters.” A spokesperson for his campaign pointed out at the time of McSweeney’s comments that Bell had plenty of trial experience — as a defense attorney. McSweeney declined to comment.

Last December, before Bell was even sworn in, prosecutors in his own office voted to join the St. Louis County Police Association, the county’s largest police union, which had endorsed McCulloch in the race. That was an unprecedented move, criticized as a conflict of interest by watchdog groups like the American Civil Liberties Union. The union called for the reinstatement of the terminated employees. “Despite Mr. Bell’s rhetoric about building bridges with career prosecutors, he has apparently decided to suddenly discharge three dedicated public servants in his first hours in office,” a union spokesperson said in a statement. The union did not respond to additional requests for comment from The Intercept.

FERGUSON, MO -  MARCH 4: Protestors demonstrate outside the Ferguson Police Department in Ferguson, Missouri on March 4, 2015. The Federal Department of Justice decided today not to charge then Ferguson Police Officer, Darren Wilson, of any wrongdoing in the August shooting of Michael Brown Jr. The Department of Justice investigation did happen to find Ferguson Police Departments involvement in racially based policing. (Photo by Michael Thomas/Getty Images)

Protestors demonstrate outside the Ferguson Police Department in Ferguson, Mo., on March 4, 2015.

Photo: Michael Thomas/Getty Images

Bell, for his part, told me that he supports prosecutors’ right to unionize, but that he has concerns with their particular choice of a police union. “As prosecutors, one of our obligations, one of our duties to the public, is to serve as a check on law enforcement, and so there are some concerns and potential conflicts with respect to the choice of their union.”

But the backlash — mostly from the police union — only seemed to intensify after Bell was sworn in. His interim policy memo, which he made clear was a work in progress pending internal feedback, was immediately leaked to the media, and the policies were quickly misrepresented. The union said in a statement that it was “disappointed and discouraged” by Bell’s policies and called on him to take “immediate action to stop some of these changes and find a better and safer path to implement this platform.”

In particular, Bell’s decision not to criminally prosecute failure to pay child support — a civil matter which he said should be pursued as such — prompted criticism and sensationalized headlines like “Deadbeat dads in St. Louis County are celebrating.” The union said Bell was putting the “livelihoods of hardworking single parents in jeopardy.”

To Bell, the child support policy, like his decision to end cash bail for misdemeanors, is consistent with his promises to the voters who elected him. “My guiding philosophy is that we cannot and will not prosecute poverty or operate the courts as debtors’ prisons,” he wrote in a Facebook post trying to clarify some of the rumors. “This type of misuse of prosecutorial discretion is why I ran for office in the first place. As we develop our final policies we will do exactly as promised: This office will no longer prosecute or recommend jail time solely because of someone’s lack of income.’”

Bell struck a conciliatory tone when asked about some of the obstruction he’s faced since coming into office. He called the leak and misrepresentation of his policies “unfortunate,” but said he’s received support for his plan both internally and from law enforcement, as well as from the broader public. “There’s going to be some pushback, but overall I’m very excited and very optimistic that everyone is getting on board,” he told me. “I think we’re all in the same place. We want to make sure that people are treated fairly regardless of where they’re from or their socio-economic situation or what have you. I think that we want to make sure we’re not contributing to mass incarceration and that we’re helping decrease prison populations.”

Bell’s hardly alone in facing pushback from law enforcement: Other reformist prosecutors have had to deal with a fair amount of resistance. In Philadelphia, the Fraternal Order of Police has gone to war with Krasner, most recently by suing him over his decision not to call on a list of police officers to testify in court who had a history of lying and racial bias. In Massachusetts, the National Police Association filed a wide-ranging bar complaint against Rachael Rollins, the newly elected district attorney of Suffolk County, which includes Boston, before she was even sworn in. And in Florida, former Gov. Rick Scott transferred more than two dozen cases from the jurisdiction of State Attorney Aramis Ayala after she pledged not to seek the death penalty. (Ayala sued Scott over the move, but the state Supreme Court sided with the former governor.)

“Watching local prosecutors align themselves so closely with the Fraternal Order of Police shows why these elections are so important,” said Rashad Robinson, president of Color of Change, which focuses on black voter engagement. “For so long, prosecutor offices did not believe that they had to serve the communities. In fact, many of these offices saw black communities as enemy combatants.”

In St. Louis, where the Ferguson protests sparked long-due debate about the area’s segregation and racism, resistance to Bell’s reforms was seen as evidence of just how badly that change is needed.

“Oppression here really tends to be intransient,” said Simmons. “As hard as we push, the opposition will reorganize in whatever way they possibly can.”

“We knew the police officers would act a certain way,” he added. “We didn’t expect to see the prosecutors marry themselves to literally the most racist police union in the region. They are sending a message when they do that.”

But while the police union’s opposition dominated headlines, some in law enforcement defended Bell’s efforts and called out critics for their biases. “The reality is … Bob McCulloch lost,” said Heather Taylor, the president of St. Louis’s Ethical Society of Police. Taylor noted that crime, including the murder rate, steadily increased under McCulloch’s watch, while police and prosecutors devoted resources to policing low-level offenses — criminalizing entire communities while failing to keep them safe. “We lock everybody up. But ‘Let’s lock them up’ has done nothing for our community,” she said. “At least give him a chance to do his job. He hasn’t been there a month yet. You gave Bob McCulloch a chance for 30 years.”

St. Louis County Prosecutor, Wesley Bell greets supporters during a Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Event at the Monsanto Family YMCA on January 21, 2019 in St. Louis. (Photo: Michael Thomas for The Intercept)

Bell, left, greets supporters during a Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Event at the Monsanto Family YMCA on Jan. 21, 2019 in St. Louis.

Photo: Michael Thomas for The Intercept

A Movement Born in Ferguson

If relationships between law enforcement and St. Louis County’s most heavily policed communities have not improved much since the Ferguson protests, what has profoundly changed is those communities’ resolve to make their institutions and elected officials answer to them.

Just days after Brown’s death, organizers used the Ferguson protests to register voters. For months after the killing, local town hall meetings were standing-room-only, and activists held voter engagement and civic education campaigns. In January 2015, after a grand jury had declined to indict Wilson for Brown’s death, and after prosecutors’ many missteps in the case were exposed, local activists staged a mock “black people’s grand jury” to educate residents about the grand jury process. Some of those who voted for Bell are now hoping he will reopen the investigation into Brown’s killing, a prospect he declined to discuss.

Bell’s election was a direct result of the political engagement that the Ferguson protests ignited in many people, but the bulk of the change happened in the community itself, said Kalambayi Andenet, one of many residents who were propelled into activism by Brown’s killing. “People now are talking about how we control our police,” she told me. “Those conversations weren’t happening before Ferguson but they’re happening on a regular basis now.”

“His election is a testament to the hard, hard organizing work of a lot of people who really pounded the pavement,” echoed Vernon Mitchell Jr., a Ferguson activist and professor at Washington University in St. Louis. “The point now is to make sure that while he has our support, we also hold him accountable.”

St. Louis County Prosecutor, Wesley Bell has breakfast with members of his staff at Bob Evans Restaurant on January 21, 2019 in Bridgeton, Mo. (Photo: Michael Thomas for The Intercept)

Bell, far left, eats breakfast with members of his staff at a Bob Evans Restaurant in Bridgeton, Mo., on Jan. 21, 2019.

Photo: Michael Thomas for The Intercept

Accountability to the communities they serve — and particularly the black, brown, and poor communities that bear the brunt of the justice system’s inequities — has had little impact on elected prosecutors’ careers in the past.

“What, often times, we have felt is that prosecutors were not nervous about how they treated black communities,” said Robinson. “We had to work to make them nervous.”

Color of Change launched a platform to track district attorneys’ records in an effort to counter the lack of transparency that surrounds their work; organized black communities across the country around local elections; and sought to influence the cultural debate about justice, including by connecting players in the justice system to Hollywood producers shaping the public’s understanding of how law enforcement works. For instance, Robinson said, the group connected Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, who unsuccessfully prosecuted the officers responsible for the 2015 death in custody of Freddie Gray, to the writers of the show “Seven Seconds,” about a black teen killed by a police officer, “so they could actually see what a bail hearing looks like, and how the DA acts, and how the judge acts.”

The group got behind more than a dozen district attorney races across the country, but its larger goal is to empower those most impacted by criminal justice policies to shape those policies. “This is not about making heroes of prosecutors,” said Robinson. “This is about building a movement so that those in power realize that they are accountable to us.”

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