RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
It's been five years since a Ferguson, Mo. police officer shot and killed a black teenager named Michael Brown. Brown's death ignited widespread protests and calls for more police accountability. Only now are some of those reform efforts picking up. St. Louis Public Radio's Jason Rosenbaum reports.
JASON ROSENBAUM, BYLINE: Michael Brown's death in Ferguson provoked deep national questions over how police and government treat black residents. Efforts to overhaul policing in the courts languished here for years even as other cities embraced significant changes. But one turning point came on New Year's Day of 2019.
ROSENBAUM: On this freezing day, scores of people are gathered outside the St. Louis County Government Center. They're here to watch Wesley Bell take the oath of office as the first black prosecutor in the county's history.
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WESLEY BELL: We can't do it alone. You want to go fast? Go alone. You want to go far? We have to go together.
ROSENBAUM: Some here view Bell's election as arguably the most significant regional political development since Brown's death five years ago. Bell pieced together a multiracial coalition to oust the incumbent prosecutor who was in office when a grand jury declined to charge the officer who shot Brown. In the same county where Brown was killed, Bell wants to implement policies that align with Ferguson activism, things like setting up a unit dedicated to investigating police deadly force.
BELL: Just the fact that someone, you know, like myself is sitting here in this office with those types of policies, which 10 years ago would have been unheard of, I think, are signs of - that we're heading in the right direction.
ROSENBAUM: Activists have seen modest progress in the Missouri General Assembly. Lawmakers went after cities that keep big traffic fines on motorists. But the state's attorney general reported this year that across Missouri, black drivers are still 91% more likely to be pulled over than white drivers and are more likely to be stopped in places where they live like Ferguson. While these statistics have alarmed some Missouri lawmakers, others who represent the suburbs express different concerns. State Representative Shane Roden says his constituents see the protest movement itself as an attack on law enforcement.
SHANE RODEN: The people in Jefferson County, from the outside view, were mad. I mean, it was an absolute disgrace. This is what happens when politics get involved in law enforcement issues.
ROSENBAUM: This pushback seeped into national politics, where Donald Trump's full-throated support of law enforcement and criticism of the protesters played out during his successful campaign for president. That frustrated Cori Bush, who participated in Ferguson protests and lost her bid for Congress.
CORI BUSH: One thing that would really drive me nuts when people would say, well, you know, I stand 100% with law enforcement. You don't stand 100% with your spouse, so let's stop that.
ROSENBAUM: Others argue that gauging progress through elections or enacted policies isn't enough. Some activists like Kareem "Tef Poe" Jackson say politics alone won't solve the problem of preconceived notions that people have about black people here.
KAREEM JACKSON: I think that political engagement goes so far beyond just voting. And if you're looking for voting to be the sole mechanism to spark change in your immediate life, then you're going to be waiting forever.
ROSENBAUM: St. Louis County Prosecutor Wesley Bell says he has noticed that some people seem more willing than before to talk openly with each other about inequity and racism.
BELL: One thing I will say about Ferguson is that whatever side of the spectrum your on with respect to any of these issues, more than likely, you've at least had a uncomfortable conversation or two or three about these issues. And so you do at least see book clubs on race, community town halls on these types of issues.
ROSENBAUM: It will be up to people like Bell to continue to have those uncomfortable conversations within the halls of government and try to bridge remaining racial divides throughout the state. For NPR News, I'm Jason Rosenbaum in St. Louis.