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Bell outlines his plan for reform

St. Louis County Prosecutor Wesley Bell discusses his plans at a press conference on Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2019, at the Buzz Westfall Justice Center. Bell defeated longtime prosecutor Robert McCulloch and was sworn in Jan. 1. Photo by Christian Gooden, cgooden@post-dispatch

CLAYTON • St. Louis County Prosecutor Wesley Bell said Tuesday that while he supports workers’ rights to unionize, he thinks his staff should not join the one that represents city police officers.

“This presents an inherent conflict of interest with respect to prosecuting those cases, working with those officers and making sure the public has confidence in the unbiased and impartial ability of this office to prosecute cases,” Bell said in a statement Tuesday. “I have not been provided any valid reason as to why the members of the ‘bargaining unit’ can’t choose a non-law enforcement union that does not present an inherent conflict of interest.”

Jeff Roorda, business manager for the St. Louis police union, called Bell’s claim of a conflict of interest “preposterous.”

“This is union busting,” Roorda said. “It clearly violates the plain reading of the Missouri Constitution. He doesn’t like the union they’ve selected because of what the union stands for.”

Assistant prosecutors voted in December, a couple of weeks before Bell took office, to enter the St. Louis Police Officers Association. The vote was held in secret and supervised by retired federal mediator Richard Horn. The SLPOA represents St. Louis city police officers.

Bell spokeswoman Josi Nielsen said in a text message that Bell released the statement Tuesday because “the office continues to have media inquires on the union issue and we wanted to make sure the most updated info was made available to staff so that they weren’t hearing anything from sources other than Mr. Bell.”

Bell’s statement offered several points underscoring his opposition, including his belief that the Dec. 17 election had no public agency overseeing it and that his staff and supervisors should not be represented by the same union.

St. Louis County police are represented by the St. Louis County Police Association.

Bell also said he has already received a letter from the county police union objecting to some of his policies and claiming to represent a “bargaining unit.”

“I have no intention of allowing public policies that I pursue as the elected prosecuting attorney to be subject to any collective bargaining,” Bell said.

Joe Patterson, president of the county police union, denied sending Bell a letter but did make a public statement last month attacking some of Bell’s new policies, including decriminalizing child support cases and issuing summonses instead of arrest warrants on some felony cases.

Bell defeated longtime chief prosecutor Robert P. McCulloch in August in the Democratic primary, running on a platform of criminal justice reform that includes reducing the jail population and providing mental health and drug treatment to defendants. Bell is the first African-American elected to the office.

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