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Belmar: Ferguson No-Fly Zone Was All About Safety

St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar at a press conference Thursday, Sept.4
File photo by Bill Greenblatt | UPI

 The St. Louis County police chief is disputing a report the Associated Press published over the weekendthat said an August no-fly zone over Ferguson was meant to keep media helicopters from the area.  

The AP report said recorded phone conversations between the Federal Aviation Administration and county police officials showed the two parties were looking for ways to word an FAA order that would allow commercial traffic in the area, but not media helicopters.  

The order was first issued around 1:15 p.m. on Aug. 12. County police chief Jon Belmar said Monday it was the FAA that contacted law enforcement in Ferguson about flight restrictions on Aug. 11. He said the agency was concerned about the amount of air traffic in the corridor near Lambert and about safety.

"The FAA started this conversation with the police department because of the number of shots that were fired," Belmar said. "This was reported. We have air crews that talk about seeing muzzle flashes from the ground." Belmar said when the FAA reached the command post at 4 a.m. Aug. 11, they happened to get Capt. Kurt Frisz, a pilot with 29 years on the force.

Belmar read a transcript of a 911 call from Aug. 10, in which a Ferguson resident reported seeing unknown people firing a pistol at a helicopter. He said audio of that call would be made available once identifying information such as the caller's name and address were removed. Belmar also played recordings of communications between an unidentified helicopter pilot and the command post that took place on Aug. 19, when the pilot reported being hit by a laser beam.

"Certainly, our helicopter pilots took measures to increase their safety by gaining some altitude during this," Belmar said. "But at no time did we request that only media be kept out of the airspace. I can tell you that myself, Chief [Sam] Dotson [of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department], [Missouri State Highway Patrol Capt. Ron] Johnson, everyone else who was in the arena during this, we didn’t have those types of discussions in the unified command."

The FAA did not immediately respond to requests for clarification about Belmar's sequence of events. The FAA administrator told the AP that "media was never banned from covering the ongoing events in Ferguson in this case."

Belmar said the St. Louis County police did not have any aircraft in Ferguson besides the helicopter. However, he said, there were other air assets in the area.

"They're for the purpose of supporting the operation on the ground,"Belmar said, but would not elaborate beyond saying they were not the reason for the FAA's concern about air traffic.

Belmar said no decision had yet been made about any possible airspace restrictions when the grand jury decision is released. 

Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.