CLAYTON, Mo. – 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.”