Updated at 6:45 p.m. Feb. 10, with details of Lt. Keith Wildhaber's $10.25 million settlement with St. Louis County
“It has been an honor to work with and for the women and men of the St. Louis County Police Department,” Belmar said in a statement released Monday. “The dedication, sacrifice, and bravery of those that work for this department is unmatched. The citizens and businesses of St. Louis County deserve nothing but the best, and I firmly believe they receive that from us every day.”
He was not available for any additional comment Monday, according to the department.
Under the microscope
Belmar had been under scrutiny over the past few months after a jury awarded a nearly $20 million verdict to an officer who sued the police for workplace discrimination and retaliation.
The county on Monday evening announced it would pay $10.25 million to settle with Lt. Keith Wildhaber. County Executive Sam Page said Belmar’s retirement was not part of the settlement.
Some county leaders held Belmar responsible for the discrimination and the jury award.
County Councilwoman Lisa Clancy, D-Maplewood, suggested in the days following the Wildhaber verdict in October that Belmar should resign. She is now the council chairwoman and said Monday she was pleased with Belmar’s decision to step down.
“I think that the chief made the best decision for St. Louis County, and I wish him the best in his retirement,” Clancy said. “It really feels like the time is ripe for some new energy, some new ideas, a fresh perspective to come in.”
John Bowman, president of the NAACP of St. Louis County, called Belmar’s retirement a great opportunity for the county to improve its policing. “We have an opportunity to embrace the potential of new leadership that will bring unity back to St. Louis County, in regards to how law enforcement is implemented in St. Louis County,” he said. “It has been my observation that under Chief Belmar, there was never truly any urgency on addressing the divisiveness, or the diversity issues that existed within the St. Louis County Police Department.”
Page called for “serious changes” in the police department following the Wildhaber decision but never said explicitly that Belmar should go. He did, however, replace the majority of the members of the St. Louis Board of Police Commissioners, which oversees Belmar’s contract, in the wake of the jury verdict.
The new head of the police board, former Missouri Supreme Court Judge Ray Price, declined to say Monday whether the board had discussed removing Belmar since it turned over in December. Clancy said she was not aware of any conversations about forcing the chief out, but she said it didn’t come as a shock to her that he was leaving.
“Given some of the challenges that have happened, that have been brought to light within the St. Louis County Police Department over the past year and even longer, I don’t think this is something that is even really surprising for a lot of people in our community,” Clancy said.
Price said Belmar’s decision to retire was his own. He wasn’t forced out of his job.
“There were rumors, but this was the chief’s decision,” Price said in an interview Monday. “It was his decision to do this, but I’m sure he is mindful of all the events that have taken place.”
Broad search expected
Price said the police board will meet soon to talk about the search process to replace Belmar, who makes nearly $160,000 annually. He declined to say how broad the search for the new police chief might be, and whether it will include candidates from outside the region.
“We will be meeting in the very near future to determine the type of search we believe needs to be undertaken and just how we will go about that,” Price said.
Price said the county police department has done an excellent job with responding to crimes quickly and closing out homicide cases — something that major law enforcement agencies across the country find challenging.
The police board will likely look at candidates that can maintain the department’s strong public safety record, while also being “honest” and “direct” and someone who will “promote diversity and inclusion” within the police ranks, Price said.
The board is free to conduct a nationwide search, but the St. Louis County Police Officers Association said in a statement that it prefers an internal candidate. “We look forward to continuing to advocate for our members with the next police chief. We feel strongly that the next chief is already wearing the St. Louis County Police uniform,” the union said. Both Bowman and Adolphus Pruitt, head of the St. Louis NAACP, said it was time for a black chief, something the department has never had in its 65-year history. There are currently two black men — Lt. Col. Kenneth Gregory and Lt. Col Troy Doyle — among the department’s executive command staff. Gregory was a finalist for the chief’s job in 2014. Of the department’s 18 captains, three are men of color, and none are black women. Belmar created the Diversity and Inclusion Unit in December as a response to the verdict won by Wildhaber, who is gay, and concerns that the department wasn’t accepting of LGBTQ staff members. Wildhaber, after his promotion, was put in charge of this new unit.
Praises for Belmar
Page praised Belmar’s work in a tweet Monday.
Today, Chief Jon Belmar announced his retirement. He took over a department during difficult times. During his tenure, he created the Diversity and Inclusion Unit and obtained voter approval of Prop P, allowong police officers the raises they deserved. Thanks for your service.
— County Executive Sam Page (@DrSamPage) February 10, 2020
“He took over the department during difficult times. During his tenure, he created the Diversity and Inclusion Unit and obtained voter approval of Prop P, allowing police officers the raises they deserved,” he said.
Page also said Belmar’s retirement wasn’t expected and isn’t necessarily related to the Wildhaber case. “Belmar shared with me a year ago that he was considering retiring in 2020 so this is the natural course of his plans. His career is long and accomplished, and I appreciate the work he has done,” Page said in a written statement. St. Louis Metropolitan Police Chief John Hayden called Belmar a “close partner in crime fighting.” “He has certainly been there for me personally and professionally, as I have matured in my role as police chief for the city. I wish Jon the best,” Hayden said.
Belmar, 56, started his career in the Affton Southwest precinct, which he would later command. He also led the Bureau of Tactical Support, the Bureau of Crimes Against Persons and the bomb and arson squad. Before he was promoted in January 2014, he was the commanding officer of the Division of Special Operations.
Belmar told St. Louis Public Radio shortly after he was named chief that policing was all about customer service.
"You have to have the ability to deliver services," he said at the time. "Homicide detectives, SWAT team, helicopters, record room clerks, none of that stuff matters unless we’re able to deliver the response to emergency services, and figure out a way to reduce crime in St. Louis County."
Reacting to Ferguson
Belmar had been chief for less than a year when Darren Wilson, a white Ferguson police officer, shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old. The St. Louis County Police Department took over that investigation almost immediately, and it was Belmar who provided the first details about the shooting.
The protests that followed, and the police response to them, brought the policing practices of St. Louis County and many other departments under sharp scrutiny. In an effort to head off potential federal lawsuits, Belmar asked the U.S. Department of Justice to do an “After Action Report” evaluating the department’s policies on racial profiling, stop and frisk, poilicing demonstrations and training of both recruits and ongoing professional education.
Bowman said he soured on Belmar after the county’s militarized response to the protests that followed Brown’s death. “Instead of treating citizens as if they were in a war zone, we needed leadership that was going to be sensitive to a very sensitive situation, and that leadership under Chief Belmar never reflected that type of sensitivity,” he said.
The report, released in October 2015, found several areas of concern for the county police, including a lack of training on community policing and problems with diversity in the department. The DOJ also raised concerns about disparities in traffic stops — black motorists were stopped at a rate significantly higher than their population and were much more likely to be stopped for non-moving violations.
Belmar promised to “evaluate the recommendations, and move forward in ways that will ensure our commitment to serve and protect the citizens of St. Louis County, while continuing to set an example of leadership for other agencies to follow.”
But some of the problems in the department remain. As of 2018, the latest year for which complete traffic stop data are available, county police were still pulling over black drivers at a rate higher than their population, though that difference had shrunk from 1.84 in 2016 to 1.58 in 2018. And on Twitter, the Ethical Society of Police, which advocates for officers of color in both St. Louis and St. Louis County, highlighted instances in which black county officers, especially black female officers, were passed over for promotion.
The Ethical Society released a brief statement on Monday wishing Belmar the best in his retirement.
Pruitt, with the city NAACP, said he did not believe that the department had done everything it could do to address the problems outlined by the DOJ. But he placed the blame on the Board of Police Commissioners, rather than Belmar.
“At the end of the day, if we don’t have a board that is going to hold the department accountable, not going to ensure that the areas that need to be looked at are examined and deficiencies are addressed, if they don’t put strong policies and procedures in place, I won’t blame the chief,” Pruitt said. “I’m always going to blame the folks who are ultimately in charge and have the decision-making authority.
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