St. Louis prosecutor faces first opponent since Ferguson protests
St. Louis County’s longtime prosecuting attorney Bob McCulloch is seeking an eighth four-year term, four years after the 2014 Ferguson protests. That year, he drew heavy criticism for the way he handled his investigation into Michael Brown’s shooting and for his failure to indict Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot Brown. His actions fit a long pattern of cases in which he did not press charges after police shootings of unarmed Black men, Pema Levy reported at the time.
In the Aug. 7 Democratic primary, McCulloch faces Wesley Bell, a former public defender who was elected to the Ferguson City Council in 2015 and who “helped establish new police accountability and court reforms,” Amanda Sakuma reports in a new Appeal article. The primary winner will face no opponent in the November general election.
McCulloch is campaigning as a “public safety” candidate and warning against the advocacy of reform groups. “That is a real danger to public safety. They don’t think people ought to go to prison,” McCulloch said according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. But Bell has campaigned on a need for reform. “That antiquated model of focusing on conviction rates and looking strong, that model is not working and is not making us safer,” he said.
What does this contrast mean for concrete policies? In their answers to a lengthy questionnaire prepared by the ACLU of Missouri, Bell makes a series of reform commitments that McCulloch does not mirror. (You can read Bell’s and McCulloch’s full answers.) Commitments that only Bell makes include: never seeking the death penalty, eliminating money bail for nonviolent offenses, supporting the creation of safe injection sites, opposing legislation that sets new mandatory minimums, reducing the share of cases in which prosecutors seek the maximum sentence, and considering the immigration ramifications of prosecutorial decisions. While campaigning, Bell is specifically spotlighting his stance on money bail, for instance tweeting this brief video on why he opposes its use.
As for the issue that looms over this race, Bell states in his questionnaire that he would entrust investigations into police misconduct to an independent unit or independent prosecutor. During the 2014 protests in Ferguson, McCulloch faced calls for a special prosecutor to take over because of concerns that he was not impartial, but he did not recuse himself.
The candidates operate on different financial planes. McCulloch has raised $370,000 since his current term began in 2015, and more than $200,000 this year alone; Bell has raised $124,000, much of which just over the past few weeks. In addition, McCulloch has been endorsed by “every living former police chief in St. Louis County,” Alan Greenblatt reports. Local organizations supporting Bell include Indivisible St. Louis and the Ethical Society of Police.
Update: St. Louis County will have a new prosecuting attorney: Bob McCulloch, who has been in office since 1991, lost to Ferguson City Council Member Wesley Bell in the Democratic primary. This was his first challenge since he failed to indict the Ferguson police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown in 2014.
In HuffPost, Matt Ferner reports on the sustained activism that went into organizing people around change. “We opened our field office in Ferguson, right where the uprising took place,” recounts Dominique Sanders, a field organizer for Color of Change PAC. “We’d get folks talking about the race, the important role that prosecutors play in our community and that we had the power to elect the most powerful local criminal justice position in our region.” Activist and writer Frank Leon Roberts sounds a similar note in a postmortem of his own: “Bell’s win is testimony to the power of grassroots social movements [and] of the verifiable impact of the movement for Black lives on today’s political landscape.” Both writers detail the organizations who engaged in movement-building work, including Action St. Louis and its founder Kayla Reed, the Organization for Black Struggle, Missouri Faith Voices, Indivisible St. Louis, the Ferguson Collaborative, the St. Louis Reform Coalition, Millennial Activists United, Lost Voices, Faith in Action, and Hands Up United.