Belmar retiring as St. Louis County police chief

St. Louis County Police Chief Jon M. Belmar, observed by Roland Corvington, who resigned as chair of the St. Louis County Board of Police Commissioners in October.

Photo by Wiley Price

St. Louis County Police Chief Jon M. Belmar announced his retirement on Monday, February 10 after nearly 34 years of service, six of those as police chief. He will leaves the department at the end of April.

St. Louis County Executive Sam Page said that this was the “natural course” of Belmar’s plans.

“I have said all along that change begins at the top and it did, with my appointment of four new members to the five-member police board,” Page said in a statement. “I encouraged Chief Belmar to lead the police department through the transition, and he has.”

Belmar became police chief in January 2014, just eight months before the Ferguson unrest. In 2015, the U.S. Department of Justice criticized the county police’s militarized response to the protests in Ferguson, under Belmar’s leadership. Belmar disagreed. The DOJ also argued that the St. Louis County Police Department was overly focused on its SWAT team and placed too much emphasis on tactical skills over community policing.

Some claim that Belmar hasn’t risen to the challenge of changing the culture that the DOJ criticized him for. The Ethical Society of Police (ESOP), a police association of city and county officers who promote racial equity, has continuously battled with Belmar on diversity and inclusion issues.

“Chief Belmar has been consistently tone-deaf to the concerns raised by African Americans regarding discriminatory practices and disparate treatment of minorities relative to hiring, selection to specialized units, disciplinary actions and promotions,” ESOP said in a December 18 statement. ESOP claimed that the department “has had a race issue long before Chief Jon Belmar; however, he has done little to adequately address the problem.”

ESOP’s December statement came after the county police established a new Diversity and Inclusion Unit. Belmar appointed as the unit’s inaugural commander Lt. Keith Wildhaber, who recently won a $19 million discrimination case against the department after being told by others on the force to “tone down his gayness.”

While the unit’s creation was a good step, the ESOP said that the fact that there was no selection process for “such an important assignment” signaled a lack of sincerity.

“We question the strength of the motivation for meaningful change as the creation of the unit came only after [the department] was hit with a multi-million dollar civil lawsuit brought by then-Sergeant Wildhaber who has been chosen to head the new unit,” ESOP stated. 

The St. Louis County Police Department did not create an inclusion unit after then-Lieutenant Rick Hayes was terminated in 2013 for instructing several county officers to racially profile and arrest African Americans in the South County area, ESOP stated. Hayes is now back on the force. There was no unit established after Officer Nikki Brown, a black female officer, filed a detailed 21-page complaint alleging that county police department employees not only subjected her to sexual harassment but discriminated against her and also several African-American recruits within the police academy, ESOP stated.

“I wish him the best in his retirement or next endeavors,” said Sgt. Heather Taylor, president of the ESOP, who serves on the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department. “It’s time to move the St. Louis County Police Department to a place of real transparency and police accountability for the community and all officers.”

Belmar resides in West St. Louis County with his wife. When he was appointed chief, he was responsible for an authorized staff of 853 commissioned police officers and 276 professional staff employees. Since then, the department has grown to over 1,020 commissioned police officers and 342 professional staff employees.

In a statement, Belmar said, “It has been an honor to work with and for the women and men of the St. Louis County Police Department. 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.”

Page said the process of changing the police department’s leadership will be “thoughtful and orderly.”

“I have already begun discussing future leadership with members of the police board, and I look forward to working with them as the next police chief is chosen,” Page said. “This is an opportunity for an open dialogue about the future of the police department. I am confident that the future will be built on a strong foundation that already exists.”

That dialogue will surely move forwards at the St. Louis County Board of Police Commissioners meeting on Wednesday, February 19 at 6:30 p.m. at the Hazelwood East Early Childhood Center, 12555 Partridge Run in Florissant. 

“This is a departure from past practice where meetings have been held at the police headquarters during the day,” noted Thomasina Hassler, a recent appointee to the board. 

Lamar Johnson and conviction integrity 

Does an elected prosecutor have the authority to correct the wrongful convictions of their predecessors?

This week, 45 elected prosecutors from around the country signed and submitted a brief to the Missouri Supreme Court fervently arguing that they did.

“When an innocent person becomes enmeshed in the gears of that system, the officials empowered by the public to turn on the machinery are not powerless to turn it off,” they state in an amicus curiae brief filed on Monday, February 10. “It would be a perverse system indeed if elected representatives may ask the courts to imprison innocent citizens but not to free them.”

The brief was submitted as part of the Lamar Johnson case, which the Supreme Court is currently reviewing and is being closely watched by elected prosecutors nationwide. It’s a case dredged up by St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kimberly Gardner’s Conviction Integrity Unit.

Twenty-four years ago, Johnson was convicted of murdering Marcus Boyd on October 30, 1994, though evidence shows that Johnson was at a friend’s house and would not have been able to commit the crime. He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

In July, Gardner’s prosecutors asked Circuit Judge Elizabeth Hogan to set aside Johnson’s 1995 murder conviction. Gardner’s team alleges that former prosecutors and police fabricated evidence to get the conviction of an innocent man.

Hogan brought in Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt to represent the state, which is what voters elected Gardner to do. Schmitt has argued all the way to the state’s highest court that Gardner doesn’t have the authority to ask for a new trial if she thinks an innocent person has spent more than two decades in prison wrongfully.

The Missouri Supreme Court’s ruling in the Johnson case would impact other prosecutors throughout the state, including St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell, who have also established a Conviction Integrity Unit.

“If allowed to stand, this decision would not only leave Lamar Johnson behind bars, but create a severe barrier to justice for any person wrongfully convicted in Missouri by blocking the ability of prosecutors to ask courts to remedy such cases, thus rendering all conviction integrity efforts across the state null and void,” said Bell, a signatory to the brief.

Through 2018, Conviction Integrity Units have been responsible for producing 344 exonerations nationwide, according to the brief.

“A loss in this case could also send a message to those who are trying to undermine the work of elected prosecutors nationally who are looking to increase accountability,”  said Miriam Krinsky, executive director of Fair and Just Prosecution. “And it could embolden those who are trying to push back on these reform-minded leaders.”

The brief argues that nationally Conviction Integrity Units have grown into a “recognized benchmark” for local prosecution offices, and they are now “well-settled vehicles” for reviewing and seeking to overturn convictions when there is evidence of actual innocence or misconduct by prosecutors or law enforcement. By the end of 2018, such units operated in 44 jurisdictions across the country, including in many of amici’s own cities and counties.

“Although prosecutors serve as legal representatives of the state, they are not one-dimensional advocates charged with obtaining convictions and resisting the reversal of a wrongful conviction at all costs,” the brief states.

Gardner has faced fierce resistance during her tenure as prosecutor, and she recently filed a civil rights lawsuit against the City of St. Louis, the St. Louis Police Officers Association and other individuals. The lawsuit argues that the resistance and attacks aimed at ousting her from office are racially motivated. The pushback to Gardner’s Conviction Integrity Unit is a reflection of the pushback she is facing, one signatory said.

“Allowing politics to determine whether relief is granted or denied in a case where there are credible claims of innocence and serious concerns about prosecutorial and law enforcement misconduct is unconscionable,” said Andrew Warren, state attorney of Florida’s Thirteenth Judicial Circuit, another signatory to the brief. “This is a matter of justice for Lamar Johnson and the integrity of our system.”

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