During a news conference on Wednesday, St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar defended the aggressive response of police officers in Ferguson, saying the use of tear gas, smoke, and armored trucks was necessary to patrol “very urban areas.”
Belmar, who oversaw the department in their crackdown on protests in the days after Michael Brown’s death by a police officer, defended the militarized response even during peaceful protests.
“We have a responsibility,” Belmar said, adding that his department often uses their equipment for barricade situations and while executing search warrants. “I never envisioned a day in which we would see that type of equipment used against protesters. But I also never envisioned a day in 28 years that we’d see the kind of criminal activity spin out of peaceful demonstrations.”
Belmar added that he and his officers had no regrets about the tactics put in place, including tear gassing the crowds, which he assured reporters had no long-lasting effects.
“Our choices were to rip, wade into the crowd with nightsticks and riot sticks. 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.”
According to the Huffington Post, Belmar did mention a particular incident when he told officers to lower their rifles, which were trained on protestors.
“I asked personally about what was going on over there. I said, ‘Why are we on those rifles?’ Because there’s a guy down the street with a gun,” Belmar said. “And I said, ‘What’s going on right now?’ And they said he’s just walked over right to where we can’t see him, and I said, ‘Lower the rifles, grab the binoculars.’”
Still, many are critical of the tactics used by police to subdue protestors. The head of the police department in the city of St. Louis has expressed his concern over the aggressive response, as well as President Obama, who initiated a review into federal programs that give local law enforcement militarized equipment.
And while the number of officers from the Missouri State Highway Patrol and St. Louis County Police patrolling Ferguson have been reduced, Missouri State Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson said that officers have to change their tactics if they are to see real change in the community.
“True change started because we in law enforcement are listening,” Johnson said. “It’s hard to listen when people are shouting. It’s hard for children to learn when schools are closed. It’s hard to keep businesses running when they are being looted. Those are things that are not happening in Ferguson because people are communicating with one another and I know it’s already leading to change not just in Ferguson but throughout our region.”
We’ll keep you updated with the latest from Ferguson.