State Watch

Missouri prosecutor calls for changes to laws that shield police


A prosecuting attorney in Missouri is calling for changes to laws that shield police from prosecutions, saying that police should not receive protections that are not granted to ordinary citizens.

Wesley Bell, the prosecuting attorney for St. Louis County, spoke to The Associated Press this week after a third review failed to show enough evidence to charge the officer who shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed Black man who died in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014.

Bell said that the inherent problem lies with the established laws that prevent prosecutors from taking action. 

“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 told the AP. 

The killing of Brown, who was 18, sparked nationwide outrage at the time, and led to protests across the nation that sparked the Black Lives Matter movement. The movement has gained strong momentum this year following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody in May.

Bell assumed office as St. Louis County’s first Black prosecutor in 2019. Since taking office, he has issued impactful reforms that have lowered jail populations in the area, like putting a stop to the prosecution of low-level marijuana crimes, according to the wire service. 

He responded to Brown’s family calls to reopen the case, however he announced this week that charges would not be brought against Darren Wilson, the former officer who shot Brown.

His announcement marks the third review failure to bring enough evidence to the floor to indict Wilson under criminal manslaughter charges — he could not prove murder or manslaughter “beyond a reasonable doubt,” according to Missouri law. 

“The question of whether we can prove a case at trial is different than clearing him of any and all wrongdoing,” Bell said. Bell noted that the case did not full exonerate the officer.

“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 have called police reform and changes to state laws that shield officers again since the killing of Floyd in late May.

Police reform advocates have called for a ban on choke holds and defunding the police, an approach to law enforcement that would divert some money away from police department budgets and into other social services. 

However, Gov. Mike Parson (R), during a special session this week on violent crime, rejected calls to propose law enforcement reform policies.

Bell said he plans to introduce new reforms allowing for recording grand jury sessions in homicide cases. While Wilson’s sessions were recorded, he said the former officer’s trial was an exception made in the investigation of Brown’s death.

Bell added Wilson was granted protections that no other defendant received, saying, “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…”

His decision to uphold the Justice Department’s 2015 ruling on Wilson’s case frustrated some of Bell’s progressive supporters who voted for him in 2018.

Tiffany Cabán, a national political organizer for the Working Families Party who previously backed Bell’s campaign, said his decision not to prosecute Wilson was “like a stab in the back.”

Bell pointed towards the upcoming November election, noting that nearly 24 states will vote to decide on new prosecutors and sheriffs.

“I think we have to redefine what winning looks like,” Bell said, calling on voters to elect candidates who will propose criminal justice reforms that will affect people of color who have faced systemic disenfranchisement.

Tags Black Lives Matter Ferguson Police Department Ferguson, Missouri Michael Brown police brutality Wesley Bell

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