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St. Louis County Officials Want Change In Police Leadership; Belmar On The Hot Seat

St. Louis County Police Department Chief John Belmar gives update on case involving to shot police officers
File photo | Willis Ryder Arnold | St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar has been called to resign following a nearly $20 million discrimination verdict.

St. Louis County Executive Sam Page and several county council members want an immediate change in police administration following a nearly $20 million verdict against the county in a discrimination lawsuit by a gay officer.

And one council member called on Police Chief Jon Belmar to resign.

Page released a statement Sunday that called for the appointment of new members to the St. Louis County Board of Police Commissioners. The commission is a civilian oversight board that reviews police department policies and appoints the St. Louis County police chief.

“For months, I have been listening to council members, police board members, the police chief, activists and community leaders about the police department’s future,” Page said. “The time for leadership changes has come, and change must start at the top.” 

An announcement on the appointments is forthcoming, Page said. 

The call for change comes just days after St. Louis County police Sgt. Keith Wildhaber won his case in which he accused the county police department of discriminating against him for being gay. A jury decided Friday that Wildhaber should be paid almost $20 million.

County Councilwoman Lisa Clancy, D-Maplewood, said Sunday that Belmar should resign.

“I don’t take it lightly when I say that I think that the chief should resign,” Clancy said. “What was brought to light last week during the Wildhaber trial about the culture within our St. Louis County Police Department, which was then corroborated by the findings of the jury, makes this a very extraordinary situation.”

Belmar could not be reached for comment Sunday. A department spokesman said Belmar would have no comment at this time.

Clancy said reforms and resources need to be implemented throughout all levels of county government to ensure similar incidents aren’t repeated. She said that includes more implicit bias training for county government staff.

“We need to have some really, you know, tough conversations about what it means to be an equitable community,” Clancy said. “County government is not exempt from those conversations.”

Councilwoman Kelli Dunaway, D-Chesterfield, said she isn’t sure that firing Belmar is the right thing to do.

“And I’m sure he can read some tea leaves. I don’t think he’s long in the position,” Dunaway said. “My concern is who is behind him? Is it somebody who has been under his leadership that will lead in the same way or not institute the structural changes that some of us in the progressive community are looking for? We just need to find someone who can bring balance to the police department and the people that it’s there to serve.”

Firing a police chief could prove to be difficult. State law requires a two-thirds majority vote of a police commission to remove a police chief. That means four of five members would have to vote to fire Belmar.

“The county council and the county executive could wish all they want to for the police chief to go away,” said former chief and current Councilman Tim Fitch, R-St. Louis County. “However, it's ultimately up to the majority of the Board of Police Commissioners on what happens to the chief.”

Fitch knows what it’s like to have his job be on the line. In 2013,members of the St. Louis County Council pushed back against then-St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley’s efforts to appoint new members of the board — primarily because they contended Dooley was trying to oust Fitch. Those efforts were ultimately unsuccessful, and Fitch retired at the beginning of 2014.

Fitch noted he promoted Wildhaber to sergeant. He added that he supported the jury’s verdict, though he expects the amount of money Wildhaber is awarded to be lowered on appeal.

As to whether Belmar should stay or go, Fitch said, “I’m not going to wade into areas outside of my purview.” 

“Really, the only control I will have as a council member is over new members of the police board,” Fitch said. “It’ll be entirely up to the police board to decide whether or not the chief can continue to serve. I will tell you that I think he has done a good job overall. Certainly he admits there have been some missteps through this. Now whether or not that means he can continue to serve or not is not my call.

“The last thing that I want to see happen is for the police chief’s position to become more politicized,” he added. “And the more politicians that are allowed to put their hands into the operations of the police department is not good for the community.” 

Page has already had conversations with police commission candidates, Page’s spokesman, Doug Moore, said Sunday. Potential nominations could be submitted to the county council members as early as Friday. The potential candidates would then need to be approved by a majority of the county council. 

Hear Jason Rosenbaum's conversation with St. Louis on the Air host Sarah Fenske about this story:

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Chad is a general assignment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.
Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.