Assistant prosecutors and investigators in St. Louis County have voted to join the police union in advance of a reform-minded leader taking the helm.
The Monday vote is raising questions about possible conflicts of interest, report the Associated Press and the St. Louis American. Columnists for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Washington Post also raised concerns in columns written before the vote.
The new St. Louis County prosecutor, Wesley Bell, is the first African-American to be in the position. He replaces Robert McCulloch, who headed the office when grand jurors declined to indict Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown. The grand jury decision sparked violence in Ferguson and nationwide protests.
Bell has opposed the death penalty, backed treatment instead of jail for people accused of minor drug crimes, pledged to reform the cash bail system, and promised to set up a unit to review wrongful convictions. He also has pledged to hold police officers accountable for wrongful acts.
The union—the St. Louis Police Officers Association—had donated to McCulloch’s campaigns during his 28 years in office. Washington Post columnist Radley Balko described the union as “one of the most aggressive police unions in the country.”
The union’s controversial business manager, Jeff Roorda, was criticized when he wrote a Facebook post linking the murder of five Dallas police officers to President Barack Obama. He also wrote a book entitled Ferghanistan: The War on Police and told the Daily Beast that the Ferguson protests were “an all-out war on police officers.”
The Washington Post gave an example of potential conflicts that could happen as a result of the union representation. “What happens if a prosecutor charges a police officer for a shooting, and the officer then files a complaint against that prosecutor?” the column asks. “Which party does the union defend?”
The Post also predicts that the union vote “will only further poison the relationship between law enforcement and the city’s communities of color. … Having the same union represent both cops and prosecutors certainly won’t help with the public perception—particularly in the black community—that St. Louis prosecutors will always back the cops.”
Bell issued this statement: “As a union member, I support and welcome the assistant prosecutors’ right to organize. The choice of the police union raises some questions, though we will work in good faith to minimize any cost to taxpayers or conflicts with the police union that this could represent.”