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Belmar confirms St. Louis County police wanted National Guard in Ferguson after grand jury decision

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

A new report finds that St. Louis County Police Department officials were rebuffed when they asked to station National Guard troops in Ferguson after a grand jury decided Darren Wilson’s fate. 

But while St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar confirmed there were discussions about that move, he added he’s not sure it would have made much of a difference.

The Associated Press reported on Tuesday that county police wanted troops on Canfield Drive and West Florissant Avenue after a grand jury decided whether to indict Ferguson Police officer Darren Wilson.

The wire service reported that county police were told that move “did not appear to meet governor’s intent for initial National Guard use.”

From the article:

That same day, Col. Dave Boyle sent an email to National Guard colleagues updating their preparations for potential unrest in the St. Louis area.
"Optics of various sorts are important as we head towards this mission," Boyle wrote, adding that the Guard was planning for a "lower profile, less confrontation" mission that would emphasize its support role and "minimize public militarization perception."

The AP went through hundreds of documents as part of an open records request. Gov. Jay Nixon’s administration is facing legislative hearings about its conduct during the Ferguson unrest – including its decision not to place National Guard troops in Ferguson on Nov. 24.

Belmar said after Tuesday’s St. Louis County Council meeting that he hadn’t read the AP report. When asked if his department wanted the Guard in Ferguson on Nov. 24, he replied: “We had discussions at the highest levels of Missouri government regarding that.” 

The rubble of a burned down business on West Florissant Avenue in Ferguson.
Credit File photo by Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio
The rubble of a burned down business on West Florissant Avenue in Ferguson.

Some – including Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III – have sharply questioned why the Guard wasn’t in the city, especially because numerous businesses in and around the town were burned and looted. But when asked if it would have made a difference to have National Guard troops on Canfield Drive or West Florissant Avenue, Belmar said: “I think, frankly, we’ll never know.”

“We can speculate whether or not that would have made things better or worse or neutral. We don’t know those things,” Belmar said. “It’s certainly fair to say it’s very difficult to predict what may or may not have happened with presence immediately there that night. I frankly don’t know.”

He added that no matter what the strategy would have been on Nov. 24, “it was a volatile situation no matter what.”

“I think I go back to 1992 when we take a look at the LA riots,” Belmar said. “I think at the time there were about 9,000 commissioned officers in Los Angeles and around 11,000 in LA County. You look at 20,000 police officers in that area when those riots erupted. When you take a look at that footage, buildings burned and people lost their lives and everything happened like that. I don’t know if it’s just manpower we’re looking at.”

“I think at some point when you take a look at these tapes, it doesn’t take very long unfortunately to go into a building in burn it,” he added. “Throw some kerosene around, light a match and go.”

Stenger takes wait and see approach on court fine bill

Meanwhile, St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger took a wait and see approach on sweeping legislation limiting the percentage of traffic fines a city can keep in its budget.

St. Louis County Executive-elect Steve Stenger said his transition into his new office is going much more smoothly than last week.
Credit Rebecca Smith | St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger

Sen. Eric Schmitt’s legislation would ultimately lower the percentage of traffic fines a city can keep to 10 percent. It would also impose stiff penalties if excess funds weren’t given to schools – including an automatic disincorporation election and, for St. Louis County municipalities, the forfeiture of county sales tax pool revenue.

While the bill passed the Missouri Senate unanimously, it has some critics. Bel-Nor Board of Trustees Chairman Kevin Buchek told St. Louis Public Radio this week that the legislation could eliminate north St. Louis County cities with black elected officials – which in turn could decimate African-American political power in the county.

Stenger said he’s heard those types of concerns. While he's withholding judgment on the bill for now, he did say that lowering the percentage of fines a city can have in its budget has “positive aspects and negative aspects.”

St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger provides his take on Sen. Eric Schmitt's bill to lower the percentage of traffic fines a city can keep in its budget.

“Of course, the positive aspects are exactly what the bill intends to do – which tries to eliminate jurisdictions where the vast majority of revenue is procured from indigent defendants traveling through those jurisdictions,” Stenger said. “And that makes sense to me. I don’t think of us want to see people preyed upon. I don’t think that’s appropriate.”

“Some of the negative aspects are there will be cities that have a difficult time meeting their revenue needs,” he added. “But that’s just a natural consequence of, you know, not having a system that preys upon people.”

Schmitt’s bill still needs to get through the House before going to Nixon’s desk. 

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.