Prosecutors Wesley Bell and Kim Gardner Take Shots at Police Union During Panel


St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner and St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell. - DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner and St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell.
The city of St. Louis and St. Louis County share a bunch of problems, but their top prosecutors, Kim Gardner and Wesley Bell, share a particularly vexing problem all their own: the St. Louis Police Officers Association, or SLPOA.

Presently, the notoriously outspoken police union represents opposition to both prosecutors. In the city, the union has blasted St. Louis Circuit Attorney Gardner for her decision to blacklist 29 city cops whose conduct has compromised their credibility as witnesses. And in the county, weeks before Bell took office, the staff voted to unionize with the SLPOA.

"That choice is troubling," Bell said last night during a panel discussion on the future of public safety. The event, held at the Missouri History Museum, also featured Gardner, St. Charles County Prosecuting Attorney Tim Lohmar and U.S. Attorney for Missouri Eastern District Jeff Jensen.

Having prosecutors represented by the same body representing officers is more than just bad optics in an age of criminal justice reform, Bell warned.

"Not only does it create conflict," he added, "but when we're trying to build trust with the community, law enforcement and the prosecutor's office, it's simply unacceptable and I for one will not tolerate it."

During his remarks, Bell insisted that it wasn't the choice to unionize that troubled him. He noted several times that he had felt welcomed in the office and that he appreciated the colleagues supporting him in the audience.

But, he added, at a time when "prosecutors are fighting the notion that we are too intertwined, too interdependent with law enforcement," the choice by some of his prosecutors to tie themselves to an organization that's been a die-hard defender of officer rights, particularly in use of force cases, creates the possibility for uncomfortable conflicts.

The comments appear to be Bell's harshest public reaction to date to the 33-11 vote to unionize with the SLPOA taken by attorneys and investigators in the county prosecutor’s office. That vote came on December 17, just two weeks before Bell took office.

At the time
, Sam Alton, Bell's incoming chief of staff, noted to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, "The timing is curious. For 28 years the employees have not unionized, and I noticed this happened just after the voters demanded sweeping change."

Sweeping change has indeed followed with Bell's ascent, with major shakeups on policies covering marijuana and the prosecution of child support cases. The transition hasn't been without controversy. After taking office, Bell fired several of the office's top attorneys, including one who had previously posted on Facebook that county voters would "soon regret" electing Bell.

Gardner, meanwhile, is so reviled by the SLPOA that its business manager, Jeff Roorda, turned her into a photoshopped Grinch to accompany a holiday-themed column in the union's monthly newsletter. The column featured Roorda's own cringe-worthy Seussian verse, "You're a disaster a Misses Kim/ Your heart is dark and vile/ You'd rather charge a policeman/ Than all the murders you could file."

Roorda and the SLPOA's criticism of Gardner runs the gamut, encompassing the petty as well as the policy-oriented. The union has targeted her own ambitious changes to prosecution of marijuana cases, as well the perception that her office is mismanaged and soft on crime.

But recently, it has been the Circuit Attorney's creation of an "exclusion list" of ethically compromised officers that's attracted the most intense outrage from the union and its spokespersons.

Defending the policy, Gardner told the panel audience Thursday night that excluding bad cops from the witness stand is "part of my job as prosecutor."

The officers on the list, she said, should "understand that they are not allowed to bring cases to the warrant office at this time. Individuals know why they are on this list."

During her remarks, Gardner noted that she could not discuss the exclusion list in detail, as she's currently under a restraining order sought by the SLPOA in September. (Gardner's office has previously stated that it never had any intention to publicly release the names on the exclusion list.)

The tension between Gardner and the SLPOA goes beyond restraining orders and Christmas doggerel. When an unidentified officer on the exclusion list secretly recorded one of Gardner's attorneys rejecting a drug case, the officer leaked the video to KSDK (Channel 5). The resulting story included the police union's reaction, which included Roorda accusing Gardner of being dismissive of the opioid crisis.

Addressing the KSDK story on Thursday, Gardner warned that officers on the exclusion list who are attempting to "take matters into their own hands" won't be successful.

"We have articulated to supervisors, upper management of the department, the chief, that these officers are on the list," she said, "and credibility is a non-negotiable factor."

Taking a direct shot at the union, Gardner described it as "one of the most aggressive unions in the country," and she pointed out that Roorda himself, as a police officer in Arnold, had been fired for making a false report.

Using a line she brings out often, Gardner told the audience that any prosecutor should expect their policies to be opposed by some people, and that if a prosecutor is universally liked, "they're not doing their job."

"I would like to win the popularity contest," she added. "But I think in this position I will not."

Follow Danny Wicentowski on Twitter at @D_Towski. E-mail the author at [email protected]

  • Sign up for our weekly newsletters to get the latest on the news, things to do and places to eat delivered right to your inbox.
  • Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Support Local Journalism.
Join the Riverfront Times Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state. Our readers helped us continue this coverage in 2020, and we are so grateful for the support.

Help us keep this coverage going in 2021. Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing membership pledge, your support goes to local-based reporting from our small but mighty team.

Join the Riverfront Times Club for as little as $5 a month.