St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar. (Lawrence Bryant/St. Louis American)
By Chris King, Special to the NNPA from the St. Louis American
In a question-and-answer session with media at St. Louis County Police headquarters on March 13, St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar walked back most of the major claims of fact he made the day before regarding the shootings of two police officers at Ferguson Police Department late on March 11.
On Thursday, the morning after the shooting, Belmar said he believed the weapon was a handgun aimed by someone associated with the protest held at the Ferguson Police Department on March 11 and aimed specifically at the police officers because they were police officers.
On Friday afternoon, Belmar would not discuss the shell casings collected at the scene and ignored a question about the type of gun that was used. He said he did not know if the shooter was involved in the protest. In fact, he said he could not rule out that protestors were the intended targets, rather than police.
He did say he didn’t “think it was a coincidence” that the police officers were shot near the end of a protest against police misconduct.
Belmar said it “would have been tragedy either way” if protestors had been hit by the gunfire instead of officers.
When a reporter claimed that Belmar didn’t describe the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown Jr. as a “tragedy,” he disagreed and even pointed out the date (August 13) and place (the back steps of police head-quarters) when he described the teen’s death as a “tragedy.”
That was four days after Brown’s death on August 9.
It was clear at Thursday night’s candlelight vigil and peaceful protest at Ferguson Police Department that some of Belmar’s thinking had changed since that morning. Thursday morning Belmar talked about “re-adopting” some (presumably heavy-handed) command tactics, but he did not do so.
A reporter asked about his apparent shift in strategy and whether it was a “calculated risk” for officers to work the Thursday night protest without wearing full riot gear.
“There’s a whole lot of calculated risk in law enforcement,” Belmar said. He also pointed out that riot gear does not make an officer bullet-proof. “Riot equipment is not ballistics equipment,” he said.
Belmar did say he will consider possible sniper attacks when he staffs future protests.
Belmar was asked about the apparent skill level of the shooter, and said, “They might be lucky. It was not a miracle shot. There were many officers standing together.” He said he did not believe “it had to be a marksman with a scope.”
He declined to say where he thought the shots came from, though he said he has “a pretty good idea” where.
Belmar spoke as if keenly aware that the region is on a knife’s edge on issues of community-police relations. He spoke respectfully of the “protest community.” He even corrected his previous statement that the investigation into the shooting was the department’s “No. 1 priority.” Instead, he said the top priority was maintaining the “tempo of service and relationships in the Ferguson area.”
Race has been a primary theme in Ferguson, since the police are mostly white and the diverse protest movement is led by African Americans and stresses the value of “black lives.” Belmar struck a peace-making tone on race. He opened the Q&A by giving a rundown of political calls of support he had received since the shootings. The list ended with the NAACP.
Belmar admitted he thought they were calling with a list of demands, but instead they only offered support. “It’s a big deal,” Belmar said.
He mentioned that a Black Congressman, U.S. Rep. Emmanuel Cleaver, called to offer money towards a reward for information leading to the shooter’s arrest. Belmar said he directed Cleaver to Back-Stoppers.
The reward amount is already more than $10,000, Belmar said, though the police are not anywhere close to solving the case. When asked how his thinking about the case had evolved, he said he did not have enough information to evolve his thinking as much as he’d like.
“No arrest is imminent,” Belmar said. “No one is in custody.”
The three individuals taken in for questioning Thursday, he said, did not take the investigation anywhere. “I appreciate the forthrightness and cooperation of those individuals,” he said.
Belmar was asked about the possibility of the county police being contracted for police services in Ferguson, if the city’s negotiation with the Department of Justice regarding its scathing investigative report ends with Ferguson disbanding its police department.
He said the St. Louis County Police Department has $20 mill-ion in contracts for police services. Asked if he would be involved in conversations be-tween Ferguson and DOJ, he said, “I’m going to have to be.”