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Jon Belmar and Ron Johnson look back on Ferguson and a long road yet ahead

Protesters on West Florissant surround a police car on August 9, 2014. Looting broke out shortly afterward.
(Rachel Lippmann/St. Louis Public Radio)

Last year’s shooting death of Michael Brown was the end of a police encounter that lasted no more than five minutes.

The aftermath shook the region for weeks. In that time, hundreds of officers from police departments across the region would deploy to Ferguson under what would become known as the Unified Command.

Two members of that command -- Capt. Ron Johnson of the Missouri State Highway Patrol and chief Jon Belmar of the St. Louis County Police Department -- sat down to reflect on what they have learned in the past 12 months.

St. Louis Metropolitan Police Chief Sam Dotson was asked to participate, but a spokeswoman said, "Since the Metropolitan Police Department only had an assisting role in Ferguson, speaking with the St. Louis County Police Department and the Missouri State Highway Patrol would be more appropriate."

Saturday, Aug. 9, 2014 was already a busy day for St. Louis County homicide detectives. They were responding to a hostage situation at St. Anthony’s Medical Center when Chief Belmar learned a Ferguson police officer had shot and killed someone.

"I called the deputy chief and said, you need to get everyone rolling up to Canfield. There's been an officer-involved shooting involving the Ferguson police department. I feel like the information I have now is that the individual involved in that is deceased, and we've been requested to it," Belmar said. "And I didn't hear much of anything right after that."

A large crowd and sporadic gunfire made it difficult for the county police to investigate the scene. From the updates he was receiving, Belmar said he figured out pretty early on this wasn't going to be an ordinary officer-involved shooting -- an instinct that proved correct.

Around 8:30 the next night, Sunday Aug. 10, Lt. Col. Michael Dierkes, the commander of special operations, called his chief to tell himthe situation on West Florissant was beginning to deteriorate. A mob of protesters had surrounded police vehicles and was beginning to kick at them. Rocks and cans were also flying. 

Belmar arrived about 40 minutes later

"I grew up in the area just north of where that was happening," he said. I remember standing out there at certain times thinking, my goodness, I’ve traveled this road as a young man so many times, and now here we are and this is happening. At times it just seemed surreal."

'A different face'

By Thursday, with no end to the violence in sight, and the police response escalating, Gov. Jay Nixon put the Missouri State Highway Patrol in charge

"St. Louis County is a political subdivision of the state of Missouri, and the governor's certainly in his right to do that," Belmar said. "We were looking for some sort of an event to cause this to end. I think that was something the governor tried -- can we put a difference face on this?"

Capt. Ron Johnson, the head of the patrol's Troop C, headquartered in Weldon Springs, took command in the protest zone on Aug. 14 with one goal in mind.

Gov. Jay Nixon shakes the hand of Capt. Ron Johnson after putting Johnson in command in Ferguson on August 14, 2014
Credit Bill Greenblatt | UPI
Gov. Jay Nixon shakes the hand of Capt. Ron Johnson after putting Johnson in command in Ferguson on Aug. 14, 2014

"I believe that policing and community have to come together and unite, and so that was my initial philosophy, to get out and unite with the community," he said.

On his first night in command, Johnson marched along the West Florissant corridor with black pastors and youth. He and Belmar, sometimes accompanied by Dotson, began walking the corridor every night, shaking hundreds of hands. In Johnson's eyes, the tactic worked.

"I think the turning point was when I looked out into the avenue of West Florissant and I saw policeman and citizens conversing, and some of the police and citizens that were conversing had been at odds days earlier," Johnson said.

Where do we go from here?

Michael Brown's shooting forced conversations about race into the open, Johnson said.

"Citizens will say that, I didn’t know it was that bad in a certain community. I didn’t know those things were going on. But then they’ll say, maybe I did, but I just didn’t want to know," he said. "And now people are getting involved from communities, and having conversations. So I think those things are positive things."

Johnson said departments across the region are making a more concerted effort to reach minority communities. He attended an event the Florissant police department held at a football camp. St. Louis County took its recruitment efforts on the road. The St. Louis police launched a new community engagement unit.

The upheaval made the community stronger, Belmar said, but there's a long way to go. Shame on us, he said, if we don't take advantage of an opportunity borne of tragedy.

"This isn’t just a police problem," he said. "What can we bring to the table to problem-solve for our community, to make it better and to keep us out of the status quo that I think in many ways has caused some of these issues to come to the forefront."

Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann

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