St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell

With the report that the General Services Administration has initiated the transition of power to President-elect Joe Biden, we can finally give thanks for a new Democratic administration in the White House. Thank you to the majority of American voters.

The defeat of Donald J. Trump, now recognized by even Trump himself, left me musing on his legacy for law enforcement professionals like myself. I find it bitterly ironic that Trump was taken seriously by so many voters as the law-and-order candidate. In fact, Trump has only made it harder for law enforcement professionals to do our jobs.

Consider, for example, he has encouraged police officers to use unnecessary force when bringing suspects into custody, as he did in July 2017 while speaking to police and crime victims on Long Island. That was disastrous advice to come from the president of the United States. 

Not only is it inhumane, it's also unconstitutional and illegal for a police officer to use more than necessary force to bring a suspect into custody.

We understand that policing is one of the (if not the) toughest jobs in the world. But, whenever a police officer commits this crime against a suspect, it makes it impossible for prosecutors like me to take the case and consider charges against their suspect. 

Police violence against suspects undermines the entire criminal justice system. That is why I founded a Conviction and Incident Review Unit in the St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney's Office. Police accountability and integrity are crucial to successful criminal prosecution.

Police violence against suspects is also bad for prosecutors and police for a different reason. We often rely on witness testimony to bring justice to victims and to protect our community. 

Our office has a staff of investigators who are integral to our efforts to keep county residents safe, but the majority of the cases we charge are brought to us by police officers. For most of the crimes committed, it is police officers who canvas the community for witnesses. 

A bad actor in the police department is a black eye on all police, including those who get in the field for the right and honorable reasons of protecting the public and serving their community. 

However, if the community does not trust police officers, then people will not come forward as witnesses. The tension between law enforcement and certain (often less-affluent) areas and communities of color will worsen. 

Fairly or unfairly, the fact remains: every lawless act by a police officer hampers every criminal investigation and prosecution.

Crime is wrong, and violent crime is especially despicable. The vigilante instinct — to take the law into your own hands — is basic, and it's not difficult to see how a hardened police officer might be tempted at times. 

But that is just not how our system of criminal justice works. In the American system that both Trump and I swore to uphold, punishment is reserved for the courts alone.

 

Better than punishing crime, however, is preventing crime, and it is here where I fear Trump has done the most to make our work more difficult. After his defeat, Trump defied the U.S. Constitution for nearly three weeks in denying that he had lost a free and fair election. 

For fathers and mentors like myself trying to convince our children and the youth in our community to tell the truth and obey the law, how much damage has it done for them to see the most powerful and privileged man in the country shamelessly tell lies and disregard the law?

 

That is why I give thanks to the nearly 80 million Americans – 328,151 of them right here in St. Louis County – who voted for the real public safety ticket of Joe Biden and my fellow prosecutor Kamala Harris. Thank you for helping to make it easier for my colleagues and me to do our job in keeping our community safe.

 

Wesley Bell is St. Louis County prosecuting attorney.

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