Last year, St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell was elected on a radical reform platform.
Now Bell is doubling down on his promise to tackle “wrongful conditions and abuse by the police”.
He’s launched the Conviction and Incident Review Unit with a staff that will report directly to him. Their job is to review all past convictions where any defendant claims they were innocent. They’re also tasked with investigating police shootings and any allegation of police misconduct – no matter how unsubstantiated it may be.
In case you think he’s alone – he’s not. There are 45 nationwide units that have been launched by at least 30 prosecutors across the country over the last 11 years.
Take, for example, Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner. He was elected in 2017 as What might be the most progressive prosecutor in the country.
Just after his election, he significantly expanded his office’s existing conviction review unit.
Then you’ve got Rachael Rollins, who is the district attorney for Suffolk County outside of Boston.
Just after entering office this year, she established an independent team to review police-involved shootings.
Bell is a former public defender, municipal judge, and court prosecutor. He says things needed to change.
“I’ve been practicing for 18 years,” he said, “and so I knew that there’s things that needed to be done differently.”
His campaign was created around pushing for reform of the criminal justice system.
His predecessor Bob McCulloch didn’t have a system to review past convictions, and Bell promised to change that.
McCulloch was known for actually supporting law enforcement. Many in the urban community, of course, hated that. Their distrust of him came after Officer Darren Wilson’s fatal August 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
Activists and the NAACP demanded he appoint a special prosecutor. He didn’t. That played a large role in propelling Bell into power.
He said now it’s all going to be different than before.
“It’s hard to compare something versus nothing. The prior administration — and again, I’m not taking shots at anyone personally, I’m just saying as far as policies are concerned — this wasn’t the approach,” he explained. “We know the same-old, same-old approach that we see incarcerating people based on their socio-economic stature, their zip code, their status, their race, their gender — that doesn’t work.”
It hasn’t gone over well since Bell came into office.
Prosecutors made a surprise move by voting to join a police union before Bell was even sworn in. That, of course, angered the American Civil Liberties Union. They said the move placed them under “direct governing authority” of the officers they’re sometimes tasked with prosecuting.
Day two in office, Bell sent out a memo that immediately put parts of his reform plan in effect.
That made huge changes to how his office approached to prosecuting marijuana-related offenses and other misdemeanors. It also largely eliminated the use of cash bail.
That means the Conviction and Incident Review Unit is just one box to check off in a long list of changes Bell is making.
Bell, ignoring crime and criminals, said the problem is with policing and criminal justice.
“If we’re the leading incarcerator by far in the world, then there’s an issue that needs to be addressed,” he said. “When people hear and understand the facts, when they understand the policies and research, they get on board. And I’m an example of that. I’m in office because of that: going out into conservative areas and talking to people. And when you talk to them, they get it.”
McCulloch’s father was an officer killed in the line of duty, and that had lead to accusations that he was too close to law enforcement. Activists said that’s why he didn’t prosecute a police shooting. They of course ignore the facts… which are that there was no legal justification to prosecute a police shooting.
Bell, on the other hand, is demanding “police accountability”.
He’s angry that prosecutors in his office decided to align themselves with the St. Louis Police Officers Association, and membership in a police union would get in the way of the prosecutorial mission.
Turns out they never were able to officially join the union because of procedural hurdles.
Bell said he hasn’t closed the door to communicating with police.
“We view law enforcement as partners, and so after the primary election, we made a point to reach out to the area chiefs and leadership and meet with them so that we could start not only talking to but including them on our policymaking,” he said, “letting them know how we see things, and we also want to see and hear how they see things.”
There seems to be a growing divide between the police and political prosecutors in St. Louis.
Back in February, St. Louis’ top cop and the city’s senior prosecutor were warring over how police handled the mysterious shooting of a young officer by a colleague.
St. Louis Police Commissioner John Hayden Jr. said he was insulted by allegations by the city’s circuit attorney that his officers interfered with her investigators in the hours after the shooting, reported USA Today.
Police say Officer Nathaniel Hendren, 29, shot Officer Katlyn Alix, 24, in his apartment shortly before 1 a.m. Jan. 24. They say Hendren and Alix were taking turns pointing a revolver loaded with single cartridge at each other and pulling the trigger. Hendren’s partner, Patrick Riordan, was also present, according to the report.
Moreover, Circuit Attorney Kimberly Gardner said there was evidence that drugs or alcohol might have been a factor in the shooting. The three officers had been drinking before the shooting, according to police.
Alix, who was off-duty at the time, was struck in the chest. Consequently, she was pronounced dead at a hospital.
Hendren, who was on-duty, has been charged with involuntary manslaughter and armed criminal action.
Gardner wrote to Hayden and the city’s public safety director asserting that police officers interfered with her investigators efforts to issue a search warrant to obtain a blood sample from Hendren and his partner.
Furthermore, the prosecutor claimed that police collected evidence in an “obstructionist” way that could prevent her office from getting a full understanding of the incident.
In rebuttal, Hayden said the accusations were simply untrue.
“Let it be clear that the accusations lodged by the circuit attorney was both offensive and insulting to the force investigative unit and myself,” Hayden said.
Gardner said police told her investigators that the hospital “would not honor a search warrant to draw blood” from Hendren or his partner.
“I’m sure you are aware that we have a protocol with area hospitals that they will honor our search warrants for blood draws,” Gardner wrote. “This procedure is common in criminal investigations.”
Later, she said, police officials told one of her prosecutors that a sample had been drawn. But when an investigator from her office asked if a blood sample was drawn, she said, police responded that a breath test and urine analysis had been performed, not a blood test.
She said her office learned that the tests were taken “under Garrity,” federal rules that protect public employees from being compelled to incriminate themselves during investigations conducted by their employers.
As a result, that could prevent the evidence from being used by her prosecutors in their investigation of the shooting.
“Taking the tests under Garrity appears as an obstructionist tactic to prevent us from understanding the state of the officers during the commission of this alleged crime,” Gardner wrote.
Hayden called a press conference to push back against her claims.
He said the Force Investigative Unit – the six-member team investigating the shooting – and internal affairs officers had to balance protocols in investigating a homicide that was also a police-involved shooting.
“Their combined homicide investigative experience spans more than 40 years,” Hayden said. “On the night of this tragic incident, our Force Investigative Unit and our Internal Affairs Division followed city regulations and department procedures to the letter.
“The accusation by the circuit attorney that any action … was taken as obstructionist tactic was unwarranted, certainly untimely, and absolutely irresponsible.”
Yet Gardner said the criminal investigation should have taken priority over the internal affairs investigation.
“It’s time to focus our efforts on working together to seek the truth of this matter, so we can get justice for Katlyn Alix and the community,” Gardner said.
Gardner also criticized Hayden for calling the shooting an “accidental discharge” in comments to reporters hours after the incident. Police initially said Hendren had “mishandled” the gun.
Hayden said he was conveying preliminary investigation that was gathered by detectives at the scene. He was aware that there were several firearms, he said, and that at least one had been handled in a “careless and unsafe manner.”
“I later learned that circumstances surrounding the shooting were much more reckless and dangerous than what I had originally understood,” he said. “At no time was the sharing of my early understanding … meant to imply that any conclusions had been drawn from the infancy stages of the investigation.”
A St. Louis judge changed the conditions of Hendren’s bond. The officer, who has been suspended without pay, had been held in lieu of $50,000 cash-only bail.
Associate Circuit Judge David Roither set a $100,000 bond, but said Hendren would have to put up only $10,000 to be released while he awaits trial. Hendren was released on house arrest.