By Daryl Hannah
Despite national and international criticism, Saint Louis County Police Chief John Belmar is defending his department’s use of tear gas, rifles and armored trucks against protestors responding to the shooting death of Michael Brown, the unarmed African-American teenager shot and killed by Officer Darren Wilson on Aug. 9.
Belmar, who oversaw the crackdown on protestors, told reporters on Wednesday that in his opinionas well as other police chiefs around the countrythe use of military-style equipment was necessary “because we patrol very urban areas.”
“Our choices were to rip, wade into the crowd with nightsticks and riot sticks,” Belmar told reporters on Wednesday. “Like I said before, in my 28 years I’ve seen the damage they can do — they’re not temporary damage, sometimes those injuries are long-lasting,” Belmar said. “I felt like after 20 years of law enforcement experience — I’ve been tear-gassed perhaps two dozen times. It’s a chemical agent, it’s not pleasant, but at the end of the day there aren’t any long-lasting effects. So we’ve talked a lot about optics, the optics of nightsticks, dogs and other things like that.”
Belmar later added that his department also had a responsibility to mitigate threats of “serious crimes” and “certain terrorist events,” but admitted that in practice most of the equipment was used in armed barricade situations and occasionally in executing search warrants.
The St. Louis Police Department’s use of military-style weaponry on peaceful protestors has drawn intense criticism from legal analysts and community activists alike. Matters intensified between the St. Louis police and the public after officers pointed trained rifles at peaceful protestors and demanded that they disassemble on Aug. 13. The next day the Missouri Highway Department took control over the situation and four days later the Missouri National Guard took control over policing in Ferguson.
After the jarring images, which looked more like Gaza than the United States, flooded the national media and intensified the national outrage, President Obama stepped in and ordered a review the Defense Department’s 1033 Program, the program that grants military-style weapons to local police departments.
The timing of Belmar’s comments is also critical. On Wednesday the last of the Missouri National Guard left Ferguson restoring policing duties to the St. Louis Police Department and Missouri Highway Patrol officers, and Belmar’s comments has many questioning whether or not he had learned anything from the three week stretch of unrest and if he would use the same tactics if in the situation again.
Across the state, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon nominated Dr. Daniel Isom II to become the director of the state’s Department of Public Safety. Isom, an African American and 24-year police department veteran, has a doctorate in criminology from The University of Missouri-St. Louis and a master’s in public administration from St. Louis University. Before leaving the department to become a professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, Isom was credited with reducing crime 30 percent and cleaning up the department’s reputation, which at the time was tarnished by of allegations of corruption and theft.
“Dr. Isom has experience and training in law enforcement that are almost unmatched, including as a top-level manager and as a front-line officer in one of the state’s largest police forces,” Mr. Nixon said in a statement.
If confirmed by the State Senate, Isom will replace Jerry Lee, who is retiring, and will oversee the Highway Patrol, the National Guard, the Office of Homeland Security, Emergency Management and other agencies operating in the state.
He would also be the only black member in Gov. Nixon’s cabinet.