After a third review failed to uncover enough evidence to charge the officer who fatally shot Black 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, some prosecutors and civil rights leaders agree it’s time to focus on changing the laws that shield police.
In an interview Friday with The Associated Press, St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell said legislators need to take a hard look at laws that offer protection against prosecution for police officers that regular citizens aren’t afforded, pushing a message that has gained strong momentum in the two months since George Floyd’s death by Minneapolis police launched a national reckoning over racial injustice and police brutality.
“We see those types of laws throughout the country, and it is something that handcuffs prosecutors in numerous ways when you are going about prosecuting officers who have committed unlawful use of force or police shootings,” Bell said.
Bell, St. Louis County’s first Black prosecuting attorney, was elected in 2018 as a reformist, and he has implemented sweeping changes that have reduced the jail population, ended prosecution of low-level marijuana crimes and sought to help offenders rehabilitate themselves.
He also established an independent unit to investigate officer-involved shootings, a division that spent five months looking at the 2014 death of Brown, who was shot by white Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson. The shooting spurred months of unrest and helped solidify the burgeoning Black Lives Matter movement.
In the end, the progressive prosecutor came to the same result as his old-school, tough-on-crime predecessor, Bob McCulloch, as well as the U.S. Justice Department: Wilson didn’t commit murder or manslaughter “beyond a reasonable doubt” under Missouri law.
Bell stressed that the investigation didn’t exonerate Wilson, who who resigned in November 2014. Wilson and Brown became involved in a heated confrontation on Aug. 9, 2014. Wilson said that Brown came at him menacingly and that he killed him in self-defense.
“The question of whether we can prove a case at trial is different than clearing him of any and all wrongdoing,” Bell said. “There are so many points at which Darren Wilson could have handled the situation differently, and if he had, Michael Brown might still be alive.”
Civil rights leaders said the case shows that state laws need to be changed.
“I can’t be disappointed any longer in a system that has always performed with callousness against Black people and Black bodies, no matter who’s in charge,” said Brittany Packnett Cunningham, a Ferguson protester and educator who is now a national voice in the Black Lives Matter movement.
Scott Roberts, senior director of Criminal Justice Campaigns at Color of Change, said Bell’s decision not to charge Wilson “reinforces the importance of making the systemic changes necessary to end overpolicing and the structural racism built to protect police officers from accountability.”
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Brown was among several young Black men whose deaths at the hands of police in 2014 spurred 24 states to pass law enforcement reform. An Associated Press analysis in June found that only about one-third of those states addressed use of force.
But many states and dozens of cities and counties are taking a closer look at use-of-force laws since Floyd, a Black man, died May 25 after a white Minneapolis officer pressed a knee into his neck for several minutes as he pleaded for air.
In Missouri, no new laws are on the horizon. Republican Gov. Mike Parson convened a special session this week to address violent crime — both St. Louis and Kansas City are seeing surges in killings and gun violence — but he rejected calls to include police reform measures.
Bell knows that many people were disappointed that he didn’t bring charges in Brown’s death but says prosecuting police shouldn’t be the “litmus test” for progress. He noted that reforms he’s implemented mean families of those involved in police violence are now getting support. Also, the county’s jail population has fallen by 30%, with thousands of people instead directed to programs such as drug or alcohol treatment.
“That’s a win,” Bell said. “Those are individuals who instead of being locked up for low-level, nonviolent crimes are able to stay at home with their families, keep their jobs. Single parents are able to keep their children.”
He plans additional reforms, including a policy of recording all grand jury sessions in homicide cases. His predecessor typically didn’t record those sessions but made an exception in the investigation of Brown’s death, Bell said.
“There are some protections that Darren Wilson received that no other defendant received, and the grand jury process would be an example of that,” Bell said. “He was invited to come into the grand jury, there was no vigorous cross-examination, he was able to tell his story without that hard questioning that we would expect from a prosecutor in any case like this, and that’s what the grand jury was able to see.”
Bell’s decision angered some. Not prosecuting Wilson was “like a stab in the back” to those who supported his candidacy, said Tiffany Cabán, a national political organizer for the Working Families Party, who joined the political party last November to help recruit and elect progressive-minded prosecutors and sheriffs nationwide.
“We aren’t electing heroes or saviors. We work to elect candidates that run on solid platforms, do the least amount of harm and are willing to be held accountable when they fall short,” said Cabán, who ran for district attorney in last year’s Democratic primary in Queens County, New York. She narrowly lost to Queens Borough President Melinda Katz.
Cabán also noted that in the years since prosecutor candidates began running and winning elections on promises to hold police officers accountable for misconduct and excessive force, criminal justice systems have noticeably shifted toward diversion programs rather than jail for nonviolent offenders.
However, she said, “those who rightfully remain deeply distrustful of a system that rarely has their interests at heart have another example to point to in Wesley Bell.”
In November, voters in at least two dozen states will decide local prosecutors and sheriff races. Bell said voters should consider candidates who have proposed reforms that will have the largest effect on people of color and those who have been systemically disenfranchised.
“I think we have to redefine what winning looks like,” Bell said. “The litmus test can’t be one or two individual cases. It has to be a big picture.”
Morrison reported from New York City.