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Jaco Report: Wesley Bell keeps even keel in stormy seas

Back when Bob McCulloch was St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney, every interview with him felt like an encounter with Captain Ahab.  Crime was his Moby Dick, the solution was a harpoon straight through the heart, and you came away with the feeling that McCulloch saw himself as the judge of the innocent and the guilty, the quick and the dead, and that the Almighty could sort them out later.

Interviewing McCulloch’s successor always takes me back to a Boston park bench in 2004, talking to an unknown but unflappable midwestern politician before he spoke at the Democratic National Convention, telling my cameraman afterwards, “That guy is Zen. But who names their kid Barack?”

County Prosecutor Wesley Bell has that same sort of low-key even keel. Take his response to the “crime summit” at City Hall that featured the governor, the mayor and police officials but excluded Bell and his fellow reform prosecutor for the city, Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner. The emphasis of the two city meetings the governor has held so far has been mostly about more police and more enforcement on the streets.

“We’ve seen what the ‘tough on crime’ philosophy has gotten us. And honestly, that’s not a policy,” Bell said quietly. “You have to handle crime on a case-by-case basis. And what reform-minded individuals such as myself believe is that we have to offer more options. There are times when a violent offender needs to be incarcerated, no question about it. And there are times a low-level person needs drug treatment.”

It’s a point Bell made, quietly and politely, to the governor when Bell finally got to meet with him Thursday. The week before, when Bell and Gardner were excluded from the City Hall session, Bell, who was out of town, quietly sent Sam Alton, his chief of staff, to crash the meeting.

“Although we found out about the ‘crime summit’ through the media, this was just too important. Had I known in time, I would have been able to re-arrange my plans so I could be there,” Bell said. “So I wanted to make sure my second-in-command was there.”

Appearing on “The Jaco Report,” Bell said, “You cannot have a conversation about enforcement or diversion or dealing with serious offenders without prosecutors.”

But rather than blasting local and state officials for excluding him and his reform agenda from the meeting, Bell simply said, “I would rather err on the side of giving the benefit of the doubt. I think this is a teachable moment for our region. We cannot stay in our silos. We cannot deal with these issues without coming together and working together.”

Bell took a similarly analytical approach to a proposal favored by Mayor Lyda Krewson and city police Chief John Hayden — having the state pass more restrictive gun laws for St. Louis and St. Louis County. It’s something, Bell said, but it’s not a cure-all.

“I’ll take any common-sense gun control I can get. Will it help? I’m sure it will help. Will it solve the problem? Likely not,” Bell said. “We need something much more comprehensive. If you can just go into the next county and get the same gun, people are going to do that.”

He paused briefly, then said, “It’s a Band-Aid on a broken leg. Maybe it’ll help a little.”

Bell was similarly even-handed when it came to the investigation into the killing of 23-year-old Terry Tillman by a Richmond Heights police officer near the Galleria mall on Sept. 3.

Police claim Tillman “brandished” a pistol at the officer, and was shot. Protesters who marched inside the mall and blocked Brentwood Boulevard over the next few days doubt the story.

While praising the demonstrators’ right to protest and ask tough questions, Bell threw his support behind the investigation being run by the St. Louis County Police Department, saying, “I’m confident they’re doing everything that needs to be done, and we’re keeping a close eye on it.”

He also explained a new unit inside his office that has rubbed some police the wrong way, the Conviction and Incident Review Unit. It will be an autonomous unit inside the prosecutor’s office, looking both at defendants who may have been wrongly convicted, and at incidents of alleged police misconduct.

“It will be a walled-off, dedicated unit that will not have the same interactions with law enforcement (as prosecutors),” Bell explained.  “There’s an appearance of impropriety when those same individuals who have close relationships with law enforcement have to look at law enforcement. We’re creating a walled-off unit that won’t have those same interactions.”

Toward the end of the interview, I asked Bell about reports that he had had at least one conversation about how the office functions with his predecessor, Bob McCulloch, that turned out to be fairly unpleasant.

After a long pause, Bell said, “I’m not going to go there.”

Charles Jaco

Charles Jaco is a journalist and author. He has worked for NBC News, CNN, KMOX, KTRS, and Fox 2. He is best known for his coverage of the first Gulf War, and for his "legitimate rape" interview with Senate candidate Todd Akin. He is the winner of three George Foster Peabody Awards, and the author of four books.

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