The No. 1 Sign Wesley Bell Is Doing Something Right: Jeff Roorda Wants to Stop Him

Feb 27, 2019 at 7:00 am
Jeff Roorda, left, is the perfect foil for a reformer like Wesley Bell.
Jeff Roorda, left, is the perfect foil for a reformer like Wesley Bell. DANNY WICENTOWSKI
With enemies like Jeff Roorda, who needs friends?

Speaking on behalf of the union that represents city police officers, Roorda attacked County Prosecutor Wesley Bell last week for “union busting.” The union’s bombastic business manager said it was “preposterous” for Bell to suggest that it would represent a conflict of interest for county prosecutors to form a union brotherhood with city police officers.

For Bell, getting attacked by Roorda had to be almost as validating as scoring the largest electoral upset in St. Louis County history last August.

The contrast could be not be clearer between these two men. Roorda is the embodiment of everything Bell ran against as a champion of criminal justice reform. And Bell is the embodiment of everything Roorda has built his career railing against in his role as an angry defender of police. For those of us who admire what Bell is trying to accomplish as a disrupter of the broken status quo in our criminal-justice system, it’s quite helpful to have such a noxious lightning rod as Roorda representing the opposing view.

Bell’s electoral triumph was a clear statement by our community, across racial lines, that the tragedy of Ferguson — and longtime incumbent Bob McCulloch’s poor handling of it — cried out for sweeping reform. Roorda, in contrast, wrote the book (actually two) on why the real victims were Officer Darren Wilson and beleaguered policemen across the nation.

So, pick your side. But let’s dispense with the simplest part of this story, one that should not be blurred by the burning emotions informing our biases and beliefs about the criminal-justice system:

This isn’t about unions. And it’s definitely not about “union-busting.” Bell hadn’t even gotten keys to the office when some of his future employees suddenly discovered the burning need for union protection. And, by happy coincidence, they turned to the Roorda-managed city police officers’ union to rise up against The Man.

When you’re thinking oppressed workers and sweatshops, lawyers and investigators don’t normally leap to mind. But though it’s rare, there’s precedent for prosecutors to unionize, and there’s no doubt they have the right to do so.

Bell doesn’t contest that, though his office did push back on the legality of how this particular effort was handled. I’m not getting into the weeds on that.

What matters to St. Louis is this: The notion of county prosecutors forming a union bond with city police officers is far worse than the “conflict of interest” denied by Roorda. It’s insanity.

For sake of discussion, let’s go along with the joke that Bell’s employees need more than the considerable protection they already get as county civil servants (although they don’t). Even if they were truly oppressed, the last thing St. Louis needs is for prosecutors and police officers to play on the same union team.

This is Criminal Justice 101. When police make an arrest, the presumption of innocence requires that the state — represented by the prosecutors — prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Our system doesn’t jump from arrest to trial. Prosecutors serve as a check on police, making sure their cases hold up to scrutiny and their methods adhere to the law. Theirs isn’t always an adversarial relationship, but a healthy separation must exist between police and prosecutors.

If police and prosecutors were union brothers-in-arms, it would remove all appearance of propriety. That is not mitigated by the city-county border. There are countless examples of chases, investigations and arrests that cross governmental boundaries, in either direction. This is just as bad an idea as if county prosecutors were represented by the county police union, and that’s saying something.

Bell has neither said nor done anything to suggest changes to the workplace that would necessitate staffers forming a union. But, again, this latest issue isn’t really about unions.

Instead, it’s about two things: Race and change.

That’s why it’s so apropos that Roorda has surfaced as a public nemesis to the county first African-American prosecuting attorney. Roorda got his fifteen minutes of national fame during Ferguson in 2014, defending Officer Wilson and a system that millions of black Americans — and lots of us white Americans — see as inherently repressive to people of color. He would then write a book called Ferghanistan: The War on Police. Now there’s a book you can tell by its cover.

As an encore in 2016, Roorda got viral attention on the right for a vile and graphic tweet aimed at President Barack Obama, exploiting the tragic deaths of five Dallas police officers from sniper fire at a Black Lives Matters rally: “THIS BLOOD IS ON YOUR HANDS, MR. PRESIDENT.”

As a legislator and, most recently, an unsuccessful candidate last year for Jefferson County executive, Roorda positioned himself as a conservative Democrat, “unapologetically pro-union, pro-life, pro-gun, pro-police.” In his campaign, he said Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 election the day she brought Michael Brown’s mother on stage at the Democratic National Convention.

Roorda offers the Democratic Party the logical appeal of someone trying to organize PETA’s employees as an “unapologetic pro-cow, pro-hog, advocate of anti-vegetarian ideals.” And while Roorda no doubt claims he’s speaking for black officers as well as the Darren Wilsons of the world, his true color seems pretty clear.

Ultimately, though, the key issue is change.

If Bell is a reformer, Roorda and his ilk are the reformees. That’s not unlike the theme Bell carried so well in shocking the world by unseating McCulloch, the presumably unbeatable 28-year incumbent, by a landslide. In his campaign, Bell was clear about his mission. He called for ending mass inca rceration and reforming cash bail, shifting resources from minor crimes such as drug possession to focus on “crimes that matter.” He also called for building community trust through transparency, the end of the death penalty and resistance to the Trump administration.

These weren’t platitudes: Bell laid out his plans with an uncommon degree of detail. And even more stunning — and surely to the dismay of Roorda and his union — Bell hasn’t wasted any time implementing the plan.

In a more perfect world, priorities like the ones advanced by Bell would be received with widespread accolades across racial and party lines. Turn down the noise and the Bell agenda of criminal-justice reform is more about common sense than some radical new ideology.

But here in reality, Wesley Bell is a man with a mountain to climb. In the end, his success may best be defined by how vigorously Jeff Roorda fights to stand in his way.

Ray Hartmann founded the Riverfront Times in 1977 and recently made his triumphant return to these pages as a columnist. Contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @rayhartmann.