This piece is part of Ferguson Revisited, a series from What Next looking back at Michael Brown’s death, the protests that followed, and their legacy five years later.
This week, What Next is revisiting the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, on its fifth anniversary. In the final installment of our series, I spoke with Wesley Bell, who was sworn in as St. Louis County’s first black prosecutor. Bell stood between protesters and police as the events in Ferguson began to unravel. He later decided to run for office, won, and was sworn in on New Year’s Day. Bell and I discussed Ferguson, the effects of fines and high incarceration rates on his community, and how he’s using his power as the county’s top prosecutor.
Mary Harris: You were teaching in Ferguson, right? And you lived there too?
Wesley Bell: Yes. I taught at St. Louis Community College, the Florissant Valley campus, which is in Ferguson.
I read in one account that you were sitting on your porch, and you saw protesters go by.
Not a porch, but from the front door of the building that I was in.
To paint the picture, because this was the first time that this protest was really happening, there were young kids there. Across the street, the police officers were barricaded in the police parking lot. And the crowd, in which some people were angry, was approaching the police department. About three or four of us stood in the middle.
We just knew, if that crowd got to the police officers, that something bad was going to happen. So we stood in the middle to try to calm tensions and keep the peace, and fortunately nothing happened that day.
But then there was the day after, and the day after that, and eventually, when a grand jury declined to indict police officer Darren Wilson, you had to make a choice: stay or go.
Yeah, that night, I did have to leave.
It’s funny now, but it wasn’t funny at the time. I was watching the coverage on television. And if you all remember the police car, when it was set on fire—that was right in front of my building. So from the camera angle at whatever news telecast I was watching, it looked like my building was on fire. I remember that thought, like, “Oh my God, my house is on fire.”
You started your career as a public defender.
I was a product of the O.J. trial. I was 19, and I just saw that dichotomy that if you have money, you experience the system in a different manner as opposed to those who don’t. My thought was: What better way to make change than to be a judge?
While you were a judge, hearing cases in traffic court, you realized the people coming before you were being inundated by fees. These are the kinds of problems the Justice Department highlighted in its report about Ferguson. The DOJ laid out how tickets and fines were disproportionately punishing black residents: If they couldn’t pay, a warrant would be issued for their arrest.
Until the Department of Justice’s report, few knew the scope of it, how this was going on across not only St. Louis County but across the state, and honestly across the nation. And what I take pride in is that in my courts there were issues that I was aware of just from my experience that I corrected in those courts.
Payment plans. I remember getting a little pushback from up top, saying that we don’t want these lenient payment plans—we want three payments. So if their fines are $200, then divide that by three. My thought was, OK, I’m going to get around this. Let’s say the minimum payment would be $300. What I would tell them is, “Unfortunately, I can’t give you a payment arrangement lower than that, but what I can do is I’ll continue the case for you, and then we’ll do this again.” And then they come back in the next court date, and they only have $25. I’ll take that $25, and we’ll just continue it.
After spending time on the bench, did you see the job differently?
It didn’t take long to realize that the real impact came from the prosecutor’s office. Statistics show 90-plus percent of cases are resolved by the time they get to the judge. And so shortly thereafter, I actually stepped down from the bench and focused just on being a municipal court prosecutor.
After that, you served on the City Council, then ran for prosecuting attorney of St. Louis County and won. On your first day on the job, you fired a number of veteran prosecutors, then issued a seven-page memo laying out exactly how the office’s approach to criminal justice was about to change. You said you’d no longer prosecute low-level marijuana offenses. You’d also decline to criminally pursue parents who failed to pay child support. You ended cash bail for misdemeanors. I wonder if you could explain a little bit why you moved so swiftly when you took office to do so much at once.
I don’t know how to make change without change. And as human beings, we are wired to be afraid of change.
We make a point to explain not only our positions but the why behind our positions, the research, the data that supports it. And if we find data that proves that we should be doing something a better way, then that’s what we do.
There’s always that initial instinct, it seems, that people who are used to doing things one way will just cringe when they hear of change happening. But once they understand it, they become converts. And so we wanted to hit the ground running. We wanted to set an example of where we were going so that the office and the attorneys knew what we were doing, and that this change was coming, and that it was time to get on board, and we didn’t want to wait.
Earlier this summer, you created a Conviction and Incident Review Unit. This office will report directly to you and investigate officer-involved shootings and possible wrongful prosecutions. You said part of the reason you made this decision was cost, because if you had a special prosecutor for every case, that would cost a lot of money, and this would be a way to do more maybe with a little bit less.
Yeah, and we want to make sure that there is an independent branch of our office that is not having the same interactions with law enforcement. They can review potential wrongful conviction cases. They can review political corruption cases. They can review old cases that maybe were not indicted. Then that does help address the cost issue, because if you appoint an outside special prosecutor, lawyers don’t come cheap, and you have no idea what your costs are going to be.
I’m interested to hear you talk about the budgeting and the challenges of it, because it really stood out to me how money plays into all of the decisions that are made by someone in your position. The state of Missouri will reimburse you if you get a guilty verdict as the prosecutor. It seems like there are a lot of weirdly aligned incentives here.
So, anyone who is in the jail, if they are convicted on a state charge, the state will reimburse St. Louis County. Not our office specifically. But to your broader point, I think that adds a layer of conflict, or at least the appearance of it.
In the little over six months, we’ve reduced the jail population in St. Louis County by 15 percent. What we know is that when you incarcerate a nonviolent offender, they are significantly more likely to re-offend. Our recidivism rates now are up to 83 percent nationally. We’re reducing these jail-population numbers to the lowest level since the early 2000s—and we’re talking about the nonviolent, low-level offenders. They don’t need to see the inside of a jail. And that allows us to reallocate more resources to the serious and violent offenses.
Prosecutors are usually measuring their progress by looking at their conviction rates. That’s a metric that it sounds like you’re not interested in, but the public is used to it. How do you get people used to a new metric?
I could care less about conviction rates. What I want to look at is the impact that we have on our community.
We gave the opiate epidemic a several-year head start before we started addressing it, and we’re still not addressing it as adequately as we should. But we gave the heroin and cocaine and crack epidemics a generational head start.
If one is a violent offender, then yes, they need to be held accountable. But if one just has a drug problem, if they need mental health care, giving them that care increases the likelihood that they will be productive citizens. So, yes, we don’t care about conviction rates. We care about the impact on the community.
Yeah, but giving that health care isn’t something necessarily you can do all the time.
Well, there’s nothing you can do all the time. You can incarcerate, but we’ve already seen that trying to incarcerate our way out of substance abuse doesn’t work. Trying to incarcerate our way out of mental health issues doesn’t work. We have to start recognizing and treating the root cause and drivers of crime. And if we’re going to be serious about the solution, we have to be serious about the problem.
But there must be cops who say, “I’m doing my job. I am pursuing the law, and I am arresting people who need to be arrested.” And when you’re declining to prosecute someone, they see that as an overreach.
We have roughly 2,000 officers in St. Louis County, and there were some who pushed back. But we talked to them and explained that 83 percent of people released from prison will be arrested again. That means they’re arresting the same people over and over. When we look at [the fact that] 76 percent of people held in local jails suffer from both mental health problems and substance abuse disorders, what that means is that they’re arresting the same people. Once we start explaining that, we start getting the buy-in.
And I guess prosecutors have always had discretion. You’re just using it differently.
Absolutely. And we’re just using it to where we are prioritizing things that actually affect public safety. I could say this about myself, and I could probably say it about you, when you think about the safety of your family—it’s not that individual in their basement smoking a joint. It’s the individual with a gun who means to harm them.
You seem really unflappable. I just wonder—
Is that a compliment or an insult?
—I just wonder if anything you’ve encountered has pissed you off?
Yeah. I mean, it is frustrating at times, but I understand coming into this office that as a city councilman, I represented 21,000 people, and it’s hard to reach everyone. You have a town hall, you go to businesses and talk to people, and then you get to the council meeting, and there’s still people saying, “How come you haven’t talked about this?” And I’m like, “I’ve talked about it all month.” You still can’t reach them. So now I’m in a jurisdiction of close to a million.