A dangerous conflict of interest
Wesley Bell’s 13-point electoral defeat of a 27-year incumbent prosecuting attorney made one thing abundantly clear: To the people of St. Louis County, Bell’s vision of a reformed prosecutor’s office represents a real opportunity for the county to create a fairer criminal justice system.
Unfortunately, St. Louis County prosecutors’ unprecedented move of joining the St. Louis affiliate of the Fraternal Order of Police has made something equally apparent: Many of these prosecutors view Bell as a threat. Their move not only represents a shot across the bow at Bell’s reform agenda, it creates an inherent conflict of interest that could take the prosecutor’s office — and the county’s criminal justice system — backward.
Bell’s views on prosecutorial issues place him squarely among the ranks of a new wave of prosecutors committed to creating a fairer justice system. These prosecutors include Larry Krasner (Philadelphia), Rachel Rollins (Boston) and former District Attorney Kenneth Thompson (Brooklyn). Law professor John Pfaff’s groundbreaking work shedding light on the roots of mass incarceration points to elected prosecutors as the most influential actors in the criminal justice system. In St. Louis County, which includes Ferguson, Bell’s election creates the space for serious, much-needed reforms — including his announced plans to end the cash bail system for nonviolent offenders.
So why have Bell’s new colleagues responded to his election by asserting their strength in numbers? A reforming prosecutor attempting to clean house will obviously generate fears over job security. However, some St. Louis police officers argue that there is a racial element, given that Bell is the county’s first black prosecuting attorney. Detective Sgt. Heather Taylor of the Ethical Society of Police stated: “We can sugarcoat it all we want. They’ve been under Bob McCulloch for almost 30 years, and they’ve never come together to unionize. Suddenly, when Wesley Bell wins … they want to become a union.”
Aside from the implication of racial animus, there are serious problems associated with combining law enforcement officers and prosecutors in one union.
If a prosecutor gets handed a case where he or she is prosecuting a friend or colleague, would the public be comfortable with his or her handling of the case? Of course not. Prosecutors would recuse themselves, or their supervisors would likely remove them from the case. Now imagine that the prosecutor is part of an association that has a vested interest in protecting one another. Moreover, we cannot dismiss the recent surge of scholarship on police unionism, which has found quantitative and qualitative links between certain dimensions of unionism and police accountability.
For the system to function justly, a prosecutor needs to act as a type of check on police officers. Yet prosecutors’ offices struggle to hold officers accountable due to the strong loyalty ties that exist between officers and prosecutors. Allowing prosecutors to join police unions will create an even stronger bond between the two groups within an influential organization that fights for its members, which will make ensuring officer accountability all the more difficult.
For instance, prosecutors who are part of police unions will likely be far more tempted to cover for officers much the same way officers cover for each other, making the proverbial “blue wall of silence” even taller. Instead of reporting officer misconduct — such as a questionable search or false arrest — a prosecutor may quietly dismiss a case that should go forward. This may be occurring now, but it’s easy to imagine how much worse it could be when one combined culture is protected by one union.
This is not to say prosecutors do not have a legal right to organize, as the courts have held recognized at least some unionizing activities are protected under the First Amendment and the 1935 National Labor Relations Act. But prosecutors joining a police union creates a clear conflict of interest that will blur the line between prosecutors and police officers in a way that triggers public safety concerns.
St. Louis County must guarantee that its public servants carry out their duties to the county. Police unions are effective lobbyists that can employ a range of tactics to fight reforms that threaten their members. Allowing prosecutors to join these unions will only unhinge the efforts of St. Louis County’s first black prosecutor to create a fair justice system.