Can a Criminal Justice Advocate Unseat Ferguson’s Lead Prosecutor? Wesley Bell Will Try

On Tuesday, voters in St. Louis County will choose between Robert McCulloch, who was sharply criticized for his handling of the Michael Brown shooting, and Mr. Bell, a reform-minded challenger.

Wesley Bell, a Ferguson councilman, is challenging the longtime St. Louis County prosecutor, Bob McCulloch, who was criticized for his handling of the Michael Brown shooting.CreditWhitney Curtis for The New York Times

Everyone knows what happened in Ferguson, Mo., four years ago.

On Aug. 9, just days after Robert P. McCulloch, the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney, secured another term for the office he has held since 1991, a teenager named Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer named Darren Wilson. The killing still reverberates through the region, which, after the shooting, was the site of numerous protests and chaotic uprisings that gripped the country’s attention.

Though some in St. Louis County have attempted to move on, several issues related to the shooting and its aftermath have re-emerged as Mr. McCulloch runs for re-election — his first since Mr. Brown’s death.

In the months afterward, Mr. McCulloch was heavily criticized for his handling of the case. After a grand jury declined to bring charges against Mr. Wilson, Mr. McCulloch faced allegations that he was too close to law enforcement officials in the area to properly oversee the investigation. He has repeatedly defended his handling of the case.

On Tuesday, Mr. McCulloch is facing his first competitive primary challenge in years from Wesley Bell, a Ferguson City Council member and an advocate of robust criminal justice reform. (There is no Republican candidate, so the winner of the primary will likely be a lock for the general election in November.)

Mr. McCulloch in 2014, announcing a grand jury’s decision not to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown.CreditPool photo by Cristina Fletes-Boutte

The New York Times spoke with Mr. Bell about the election, police-community relations, and how the Ferguson shooting reverberates in the community years later.

Mr. McCulloch, who has long enjoyed the support of the state’s political establishment, did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.

The following is an edited and condensed version of the conversation with Mr. Bell.

Q: How has your community changed since the events of 2014?

A: People are awake to the need to address issues like mass incarceration, to address issues like profiling and to address criminal justice reform in general. And, you know, for years, prosecutor/D.A. races have just kind of run under the radar. But now people are much more aware of the impact of this office, and that’s a good thing.

So you decided to run because of what transpired in 2014? And because of how the St. Louis prosecutor’s office handled that case?

I think it was a combination of events: being elected to City Council in Ferguson and having the honor of serving on the negotiation team with President Obama’s Department of Justice to create the Ferguson consent decrees, but also practicing law for 17 years and seeing the policies and practices of this particular office. It’s just clear that there’s things that we can do to not only make people safer, but help people. Those two things don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

There’s a real need for criminal justice reform in not only St. Louis County, but around the country. And there’s no bigger impact to effectuate that than the county prosecutor’s office.

Do you think the relationship between the St. Louis county prosecutor’s office and the community that was deeply affected by Michael Brown’s death can be repaired? How could you bring that change?

I think the justice system is predicated on trust. And I think that by electing a new county prosecutor, we’re starting a new chapter. My campaign — which I’m really proud of — is predicated on trust and inclusiveness and bringing people together. The endorsements come from all over St. Louis County.

We do have some divisiveness in St. Louis County, and it’s incumbent on leadership to bring people together. We don’t always agree, we don’t always see eye to eye,but we have to be willing to sit down and talk to each other and that’s how you move the region forward.

You mean racial divisiveness?

I mean, just like any community we struggle with, with all types of issues.

We know that there have been issues involving race and gender and things of that nature, and those are things that we need to start bringing people together to sit down and talk about. Often times people don’t feel comfortable having those kinds of conversations, and we have to have those safe spaces where we can discuss these issues, because that’s the only way we’re going to move the region forward.

The Times first profiled Wesley Bell in 2015, when he successfully ran for City Council in Ferguson, Mo., in the ward where Michael Brown was killed.Published OnCreditImage by Brent McDonald/The New York Times

How would you have handled the Darren Wilson-Michael Brown episode differently than your opponent did?

Well first and foremost, I would have appointed a special prosecutor. The relationship between the prosecutor’s office and law enforcement is so close, and therein lies the definition of conflict of interest. If you tell me, “Hey your friend just committed a crime,” it’s just natural that you’re just going to doubt it — so I think that first and foremost Mr. McCulloch should have recused himself. It was completely inappropriate for him to handle that case.

But second, this is about transparency. There’s no policy from that office on these situations so we know what process is before, God forbid, something like this would happen again. What I’m going to do is, we’re going to create a policy — which involves a special prosecutor when it comes to police shootings — and we’re going to make it available to the public so they know exactly what we’re going to do before it’s done.

And lastly, what this office doesn’t do currently under McCulloch’s leadership, they don’t keep data on anything that they’re doing. So when we talk about issues addressing racial disparities, if you don’t keep the data, everything that you’re saying is theoretical.

You can’t, in good faith, tell us the way you’re collecting trash is good if you don’t keep the data and analyze it. So we’ll keep the data but we’ll also make it public — so that’s the only way we can be clear about what we’re doing now, what we’re doing wrong, what we’re doing better.

What about crime? It’s been continuously rising in the St. Louis metro area. How would your proposed reforms like ending cash bail or increasing diversionary programs for nonviolent offenders impact crime in the region?

If you take nonviolent offenders with drug addiction in jail, you’re only increasing the likelihood that they will reoffend. If we continue to incarcerate poor and economically challenged people with drug habits, if you take people with mental health problems and don’t give them the mental health that they need, they’re going to reoffend — and that’s what’s driving our crime rates up.

Research is clear: most people don’t jump right to violent crimes, and if you give someone the help that they need, they don’t progress to violent crimes. And if you look at it from a practical standpoint, my office would not prosecute misdemeanor amounts of marijuana. We’re not going to do it. Because even those cases require hours and hours of manpower and womanpower from the prosecutor’s office and we’re going to take those people who would been doing that misdemeanor marijuana case and we’re going to reassign them to more serious crimes.

[Mr. McCulloch’s office] is focused on low-hanging fruit because they want to get conviction rates. But under his leadership for the last 27 years, our crime rates have continued to soar.

Read more about Tuesday’s voting

People in Kansas, Ohio, Missouri, Michigan and Washington State will head to the polls on Aug. 7.

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