CLAYTON, Mo. - St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar defended his department's use of tear gas, smoke, batons, rifles and armored trucks in the days of civil unrest that followed the Michael Brown shooting, saying that the military equipment is sometimes necessary to patrol "very urban areas."
He said at a news conference Wednesday that he used his 28 years of law enforcement experience and deployed the appropriate response to peaceful demonstrators and others who officers saw carrying guns.
"We have a responsibility," Belmar said, adding that his department often uses their equipment for barricade situations and while executing search warrants. "I never envisioned a day in which we would see that type of equipment used against protesters. But I also never envisioned a day in 28 years that we'd see the kind of criminal activity spin out of peaceful demonstrations."
He said officers had to make a decision and that he had no regrets about his department's tactics.
"Our choices were to rip, wade into the crowd with nightsticks and riot sticks," Belmar said. "In my 28 years, I've seen the damage they can do. They're not temporary damage, sometimes those injuries are long-lasting."
Tear gas, he added, has no long-lasting effects.
Brown, 18, was unarmed when he was fatally shot Aug. 9 by a Ferguson police officer, Darren Wilson. The shooting sparked riots, protests, vandalism and clashes with police, who were seen on national media patrolling streets with military-grade weapons and equipment.
Missouri State Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson said that police have reduced the number officers patrolling Ferguson but don't yet know how long officers from outside agencies will remain in the city. A physical police command center, which had for two weeks taken over much of a shopping center parking lot and was guarded by the National Guard, has been dismantled and cleared, Johnson said.
However, officers from the Missouri State Highway Patrol and St. Louis County Police will continue to patrol about a mile and half of West Florissant, which has been ground zero for protests during the past two weeks. Those officers will also respond to 911 calls that come in for incidents along that street and the adjacent neighborhoods, Johnson said.
Johnson said that police had to change their tactics in order for things to calm down.
"True change started because we in law enforcement are listening," Johnson said. "It's hard to listen when people are shouting. It's hard for children to learn when schools are closed. It's hard to keep businesses running when they are being looted. Those are things that are not happening in Ferguson because people are communicating with one another and I know it's already leading to change not just in Ferguson but throughout our region."
Also on Wednesday, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon appointed a new state public safety director, giving his administration its only black Cabinet member nearly three weeks after the shooting of Brown. The governor said former St. Louis police chief Daniel Isom II will take over as director of the Missouri Department of Public Safety on Sept. 1. He will replace Jerry Lee, who resigned after almost three years as director.