When St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson and St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar stopped by “St. Louis on the Air” on Friday, part of a weeklong media tour, they sought to stress that they have a plan and that their departments were working with protesters and community members.
“I think that the message that we have is to the community: You will be safe. We do have plans to keep our community safe. We do have plans to keep the businesses from being looted,” Dotson told “St. Louis on the Air” host Don Marsh. “But at the same time, we also have a plan to let those that come to St. Louis (and) those from St. Louis (to) have their voices heard. We’re going to protect their Constitutional rights.”
Tensions are high in St. Louis as the community waits for a grand jury decision on whether to indict Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson for the Aug. 9 shooting death of Michael Brown.
In the days and weeks following Brown’s death, protesters took to the streets in Ferguson, Clayton and St. Louis. In Ferguson, protesters were at times met with tear gas and armored vehicles.
“We all agree that the optics didn’t look great,” Dotson said.
When the grand jury’s decision is announced, which St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch has said should come sometime in mid- to late-November, the police chiefs said they expect people to take to the streets.
“When the grand jury returns its decision, I think there’s going to be emotion that is going to be revolving around that decision, regardless of the outcome,” Belmar said. “But I think at the same time there is a probably unrealistic expectation of violence.”
Belmar, Dotson and Missouri State Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson lead the unified command structure that was put in place in August. Johnson was invited to “St. Louis on the Air,” but was unavailable.
When the grand jury decision is announced, the police chiefs said they expect protests and the police presence to look different. Last week, a group called the Don’t Shoot Coalition released a list of 19 proposed rules of engagement. Dotson said the chiefs agree on many of those proposed rules.
“Life safety — how could life safety not be everyone’s number one priority? Allowing access to the Internet — how could that not be a priority for everyone? So there’s a lot of more in common,” he said.
But those proposed rules also ask law enforcement to promise they won’t use tear gas or rubber bullets.
“We didn’t use rubber bullets,” Belmar said. “(If) they’re actually rubber bullets, they’ll kill you. We did use tear gas. We did use smoke. We did use pepper balls — different things such as that. We did use armored trucks. But you know what? We didn’t use those on peaceful protesters. We used that on unfortunate criminal activity that spun out of the protest.”
Protesters immediately disagreed, flooding the “St. Louis on the Air” Twitter account with notes, photos and links to videos showing protesters and journalists caught in tear gas, pepper spray or smoke.
STL County Chief Belmar just told a BOLD FACED LIE. I WAS PEACEFUL AND I WAS SHOT. @STLonAir !!!!!!!
— ShordeeDooWhop (@Nettaaaaaaaa) November 14, 2014
— Molly (@mollyrosestl) November 14, 2014
— MariaChappelleNadal (@MariaChappelleN) November 14, 2014
@STLonAir Not only was I tear gassed, hit in the head with canisters but I was also shot in the back while assisting another journalist up!
— Christopher Gagné (@cgagneASN) November 14, 2014
Belmar declined to address those incidents, saying instead: “There has to be this separation from the criminal element and the folks that are there just to protest. We’ve talked a lot to our groups while we’ve been engaged with them. They’ve asked that question: ‘Hey, listen, we don’t want to be caught up with anything. How do we make sure that we aren’t caught up with anything? Because we’ve seen people that were doing things that would cause a response, but it wasn’t us and we don’t want to be lumped into that same category.’ We need to make sure we separate ourselves from that illegal activity.”
Dotson said those tear gas, pepper balls and armored vehicles helped keep protesters safe during August’s protests.
“If our number one goal is to protect people’s lives, our number two goal is property and number three, the Constitutional rights of those that are there, I think those are tools that allow that to happen because they’re not offensive tools,” he said. “What they are are tools to keep people safe. They keep the protesters safe. Those were tools that were targeted towards criminal activities, not people who were expressing their First Amendment right, but towards criminal activities.”
Since August, the police chiefs said their officers have participated in several thousands of hours of training, including de-escalation training.
“We hope that when this starts, and when we have our peaceful demonstrators that peaceably assemble, police officers are going to look similar to what they look like at a Cardinal game: We’re just hanging out, making sure that everybody’s safe. We’re going to be there for them and for their ability to exercise their First Amendment rights.”
Both chiefs said that their officers will be wearing name badges. In the past, some departments and officers have not, a common complaint among protesters and journalists.
When asked who was really in charge, Belmar said “the buck stops with all three of us,” referring to himself, Dotson and Johnson. “The bottom line is if it happens here in St. Louis, Chief Dotson is going to be ultimately responsible for those things. If it happens in St. Louis County, John Belmar is going to be ultimately responsible for those things,” he said.
The chiefs of police did not speak highly of social media or “out of towners.”
Social media, Belmar said, has fueled “outrageous claims … that I really think take people’s anxiety levels and emotions to an unhealthy level.”
Dotson said groups are flocking to St. Louis for a chance in the media spotlight.
“Our local groups are interested in the community, the police relationships,” he said. “But there are groups from all over the country that have come into town. The Revolutionary Communist Party, I don’t know what their interest is in the shooting of Michael Brown. The Occupy groups that are here, I don’t know what their interest is. Any group with a message, completely unrelated to St. Louis, can come here and get attention.”
“We don’t want to see outside groups that are coming in here and agitating just for the purpose of their platform,” Belmar said.
The message, he said, should be about Brown.
“An 18-year-old man lost his life, and we’ve spent a lot of time and energy talking about the protesters and the criminal activity thereof, and maybe not enough time talking about the fact that this young man did lose his life,” Belmar said. “We hope that there will be positive change out of it, but that’s a steep price to pay.”
Clayton police response
Clayton police chief Kevin Murphy also responded Friday to reports that protesters plan to shut down the city once a grand jury decision is made in the Brown case. The office of St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch, who is investigating the case, is located in downtown Clayton.
Murphy said Clayton police will protect residents and businesses as well as protesters. He says he has met with some leaders of protest groups to "achieve our common goal to promote the safety of all concerned," according to a press release sent out on Friday.
"The important thing is to make sure that people can express themselves, and that its done in a peaceful manner, but we have a responsibility to ensure that all citizens are safe and secure so these aren't mutually exclusive clubs," Murphy told St. Louis Public Radio in a phone interview.
At the same time, Murphy said the police will support and respect the rights of peaceful demonstrators, as he said they have in the past few months.
"We have had approximately 17 demonstrations previously," he said. "We've made very few arrests, all have remained relatively peaceful, and we would like that to continue to be the case."
Should widespread demonstrations occur, critical services will not be interrupted, Murphy said. Officers have plans in place to maintain access to the downtown organizations that provide health care, transportation and other social services.
Murphy said he is confident in the "tremendous amount of planning" Clayton police have done to prepare for a variety of possible situations, noting these have even been reviewed by "other people familiar with law enforcement." This includes closing off an area specifically for protesters, as was done during one previous Ferguson-related protest.
"It could be very likely, but we'll have to look at it on the day of the event," he said. "We have to look at every individual circumstances on its own merits...so to look at it as a cookie cutter approach isn't appropriate."
“St. Louis on the Air” discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.