Wesley Bell,” Jamelle Bouie (2014)

January 3, 2019; Next City and The Root

One key trend of 2018 identified by NPQ was “the emergence of an active and sophisticated post-millennial generation” that was politically, culturally, and civically engaged in a broad range of social movements. Among the evidence cited for that point, NPQ observed that last year in St. Louis County, “organizing helped topple a 28-year incumbent prosecuting attorney in countywide elections.” That ousted prosecutor, Bob McCulloch, unexpectedly lost in the Democratic Party primary to former Ferguson City Council member Wesley Bell, who prevailed in a high-turnout election by a convincing 57-to-43 percent margin, earning 103,605 votes to McCulloch’s 79,565. (In the previous election, total votes cast in the Democratic primary fell short of 130,000.)

As NPQ’s Cyndi Suarez has covered, Bell’s victory is part of a larger trend of Black left candidates winning by mobilizing so-called “unlikely voters.” It is also a marker of the growing strength of Black Lives Matter and their allies in Ferguson and St. Louis County, who have been dogged and highly focused in their organizing.

McCulloch was widely seen as soft-pedaling the prosecution of Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot Michael Brown in Ferguson in 2014, but whom a grand jury, guided by a prosecution that often acted more like defense attorneys, failed to indict. The death of Michael Brown—and the failure to indict Wilson—led to the birth of Black Lives Matter. Bell’s victory over McCulloch last August has been widely hailed as a big victory for the Black Lives Matter movement.

As multiple reports made clear, the culture that led to Michael Brown’s death extended far beyond one tragic shooting. Indeed, what was exposed in St. Louis County was a system rife with stark racial disparities. For example, a year before Brown was shot, in 2013, in Ferguson there were more than 40,000 active warrants for 21,000 residents. By contrast, Cook County in Illinois (which includes Chicago) has 40,000 active warrants for 5 million people. In other words, a year before Michael Brown was shot, Ferguson had more than 200 times as many warrants per capita—and these disproportionately affected people of color.

This year, on January 1st, Bell was sworn in as prosecutor. Even in his first days, notes Rachel Kaufman in Next City, Bell has been quick to act. For instance, Kaufman writes that, “On his second day in office, Bell fired Kathi Alizadeh, the assistant prosecutor who had given evidence to the grand jury that declined to indict the police officer who shot Michael Brown Jr. in 2014.”

Bell, who is the first Black person to hold the office of county prosecutor in St. Louis County, has also made some major policy changes, which, Kaufman notes, are “in line with his campaign promises to ‘fundamentally change the culture’ of the prosecutor’s office.” A seven-page list of interim policies was issued on January 2nd, one day after taking office.

Writing in The Root, Monique Judge summarizes some of the key policy changes announced by Bell:

  • Marijuana cases involving fewer than 100 grams will no longer be prosecuted, and those with more than 100 grams will only be prosecuted if there is evidence to suggest that the marijuana was being sold or distributed.
  • People who fail to pay child support will no longer be prosecuted, nor will failure to pay child support be used as the sole reason to revoke a person’s probation. For those who currently have a child support case pending, the cases will not be dropped, but they will be placed on hold.
  • Cash bail will no longer be requested on misdemeanor cases.
  • Prosecutors may not threaten witnesses to force them to testify in cases.

Less than a week later, Bell announced on January 8th the “Bell Plan,” which aims to expand the county’s diversion programs for criminal defendants with addiction and mental health issues—in essence, shifting the county’s approach to opioids in a public health direction, thereby fulfilling a campaign promise. “When nonviolent offenders receive treatment, they are less likely to reoffend,” Bell said at a press conference, “which can help break the cycle of escalation that so often starts with addiction or mental illness and ends in violent crime or death by drug overdose.”

Bell’s policy changes, Kaufman notes, build on a 2015 report, Forward through Ferguson: A Path Toward Racial Equity, by the Ferguson Commission, a group convened after Michael Brown’s death. The group, which has become a nonprofit, issued 189 “calls to action.” These include reforming the county’s criminal justice system, fostering economic mobility, and prioritizing youth and racial justice. A follow-up report in 2018 found that out of 47 “priority” calls to action, only five had been achieved, with the least progress made in justice reform. Additional recommended changes include reforming how police use force, altering policing training and culture, halting arrest warrants for nonviolent offenses like expired license plates, and having local government create community justice centers that offers social work services and provide prosecutors with viable alternative sentencing options.

As Monique Judge, writing in the Root, notes: “Bell…ran against and defeated Bob McCulloch on a promise to ‘fundamentally change the culture’ of the St. Louis County Prosecutor’s office. It looks like he is doing just that.”—Steve Dubb