Ferguson Prosecutor Faces First Political Test Since Michael Brown Shooting

Bob McCulloch, who refused to indict the police officer involved in the teenager's death, faces a serious challenge in the Aug. 7 primary. His opponent represents a rise in candidates dedicated to criminal justice reform.
by | July 30, 2018
St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch (AP/Jeff Roberson)

On Aug. 5, 2014, Bob McCulloch was nominated for a seventh term as St. Louis County's prosecutor. Four days later, 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot dead in Ferguson, Mo., by a police officer named Darren Wilson.

Despite his controversial handling of the Brown case, McCulloch hasn't had to answer to voters for nearly four years. He had no opponent in the 2014 general election, although 11,000 people wrote in other names. Now, McCulloch -- currently Missouri's longest-serving elected official -- faces perhaps his most serious challenge since first winning the job back in 1990.

"This is the event that has marked our region, that is literally in the history books already," says Wesley Bell, a member of the Ferguson City Council and McCulloch's opponent in the Aug. 7 primary. "Most people don't agree with the way that he handled Ferguson."

Still, McCulloch remains a favorite for reelection.

At the end of June, he reported a fundraising total of nearly $250,000, which was more than six times the size of Bell's campaign treasury. The incumbent is a close ally of leading area politicians, including U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill and County Executive Steve Stenger. He's also backed by a number of labor unions, which are running a sizable get-out-the-vote effort in support of a ballot measure that could overturn Missouri's right-to-work law. And he has the endorsement of every living former police chief in St. Louis County.

"Since taking office in 1991, McCulloch and his team have removed many of the most dangerous criminals from our streets and always put the needs of crime victims first," the police chiefs' endorsement read.

Nonetheless, Bell argues that McCulloch is vulnerable because of policies that predate the Michael Brown shooting. Homicide and violent crime rates, he notes, are on the rise in the county.

"That antiquated model of focusing on conviction rates and looking strong, that model is not working and is not making us safer," Bell says. "In fact, it's making us less safe."

Bell argues that because most people who come into contact with law enforcement have mental health or addiction issues, treating their underlying conditions would do more to reduce crime than simply locking up more offenders. His support for criminal justice reform has won him the backing of national civil rights groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and Color of Change.

Over the past couple of years, reform-minded candidates have won races for district attorney in major jurisdictions that include Chicago, Denver, Houston, Philadelphia and the city of St. Louis, which is separate from the county.

"Bell's campaign, whether or not it is successful, does seem to be a reflection of a nationwide trend in DA races," says David Sklansky, a Stanford law professor who has studied district attorney elections. "It is increasingly common for incumbent DAs running for reelection to face challenges by candidates who, like Bell, are positioning themselves as criminal justice reformers. Several of Bell's themes -- ending mass incarceration, reforming cash bail, ending the death penalty -- echo the themes of other candidates in recent DA elections around the country."

To some extent, McCulloch has recognized the need to change his message to suit the times. He points out that he's already put reforms in place, such as not seeking cash bail in misdemeanor cases and diverting some offenders into drug or mental health treatment programs.

"You have to earn your way into prison in Missouri, and certainly in St. Louis County," McCulloch told St. Louis Public Radio. "No one goes to prison on a nonviolent offense their first time."

But Bell argues that McCulloch's record in this regard is woefully inadequate, noting that the county puts only a few dozen prisoners into diversion programs a year -- out of more than 5,000 cases filed. McCulloch says he's fighting for more resources.

While running on a platform of criminal justice reform has helped some candidates, it's tended to work better in open-seat races. It's still difficult to unseat an incumbent DA.

Because of how he handled the Brown case, McCulloch has an unusually high profile for a county prosecutor. Rather than deciding himself whether to file charges against Wilson, he turned the decision over to a grand jury. While most grand juries sit for perhaps an hour, Ferguson's met for more than three months. Unusually, they heard evidence from the defense. And while prosecutors generally make a strong recommendation, in this case, McCulloch made none.

The grand jury decided not to indict Wilson. While jurors deliberated and after McCulloch announced their decision, calling it correct, protests flooded Ferguson's streets, sometimes turning violent and sparking what has been called "the new civil rights movement."

A U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation found that Ferguson police had engaged in discriminatory practices, but it did not find credible witnesses or physical evidence that corroborated the popular "hands up, don't shoot" narrative suggesting that Wilson had killed the unarmed Brown in cold blood.

"Wilson fired at Brown in what appeared to be self-defense and stopped firing once Brown fell to the ground," the DOJ concluded.

For many St. Louis County residents, McCulloch's lack of prosecutorial zeal in the case remains suspect nonetheless. McCulloch, whose father was a police officer killed in the line of duty, has a history of refusing to prosecute law enforcement officers. In 2001, for example, he brought no charges against officers who shot two unarmed black men a total of 21 times, saying that the shooting was justified because "those guys were bums."

"People in North County, particularly in black neighborhoods, who have suffered under the prosecutorial power of Bob McCulloch, are definitely ready to see him go," says Kristine Hendrix, vice president of the University City school board.

McCullough faces some other potential vulnerabilities. The size of his pension has become an issue, as has the funding source for raises for McCulloch and his staff. There are voters who believe that it's simply time for him to leave.

"It is staggering to me that someone can hold power for the better part of 30 years," says Rachel Parker, a writer and marketing strategist.

But Bell may lack the resources and support to deny McCulloch an eighth term.

"Bell will have scant support in either South County or West County," says Terry Jones, a political scientist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. "That makes McCulloch the odds-on favorite."

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