Belmar retiring; Page says he wasn’t forced out as the chief

By Gloria Lloyd
News Editor
glorialloyd@callnewspapers.com

Chief Jon Belmar announced last week that he will retire as the head of the St. Louis County Police Department, effective April 30, but County Executive Sam Page said the chief is not being forced out of the job after six years.

The announcement came the same day the county announced a $10.25 million settlement in a lawsuit brought by an Oakville police sergeant, now-Lt. Keith Wildhaber, who said he was told to “tone down his gayness” and passed over for promotion 23 times because he’s gay.

After an October jury trial that focused on Belmar’s decision not to promote Wildhaber and the words and actions of Belmar’s command staff, a county jury awarded Wildhaber $20 million.

Some county residents asked for Belmar to be fired in the immediate wake of the verdict, but the chief survived that and Page’s tweet that “change begins at the top” after a backlash by business leaders.

In December, however, Page appointed four out of five new members to the police board. The newly appointed police board was never outwardly critical of Belmar, but has the power to hire and fire the chief and seemed less supportive of him than the previous board.

Belmar has since promoted Wildhaber to lieutenant and the head of a newly created Diversity and Inclusion Unit.

“Yesterday was a historic day in county government and one that will measure both the past and the future,” Page said in his county executive’s report at the Feb. 11 County Council meeting. “While we cannot control the past, we can embrace the future and shape it in a way that is inclusive to everyone who lives and works in St. Louis County.”

He said he’s already begun discussing the process to find a new police chief with the police board and promised the hiring will be “thoughtful and orderly.”

The police board will hold listening sessions throughout the county, starting this week in Florissant, as a way to get feedback about what residents want to see in the new police chief.

The South County listening session will take place Wednesday, Feb. 26, at a location that had not been determined by The Call’s press time. See www.callnewspapers.com for an update.

Belmar rose through the ranks and was appointed chief in 2014. He kept the job as head of the 1,000-plus officers of the county force despite Ferguson and worldwide scrutiny of the department.

Between the career bookends of Ferguson and Wildhaber, Belmar achieved the passage of a half-cent countywide sales tax that increased police salaries, Proposition P. His plan called for body cameras and more training for officers, along with adding more officers and two-officer cars.

Belmar retires with nearly 34 years of service as a commissioned police officer, with six years as chief and a final rank of colonel.

Page said that Belmar shared with him last year that he might retire in 2020, even before Page was county executive, “so this was really not much of a surprise.”

In Page’s written statement, he said, “… This is the natural course of his plans. His career is long and accomplished, and I appreciate the work he has done.”

Two days after the jury verdict, Page had tweeted that “change begins at the top.” But later that week, he seemed to turn toward support of Belmar after backlash from the business community against the idea of firing the chief.

In Page’s statement released the day after the announcement, the county executive said, “I have said all along that change begins at the top and it did, with my appointment of four new members to the five-member police board. I encouraged Chief Belmar to lead the Police Department through the transition and he has.”

The county executive vowed that the appointment of a new chief will be “thoughtful and orderly. I have already begun discussing future leadership with members of the police board and I look forward to working with them as the next police chief is chosen. This is an opportunity for an open dialogue about the future of the Police Department. I am confident that future will be built on a strong foundation that already exists.”

Belmar, who lives in Chesterfield with his wife, was appointed chief in January 2014 after working his way up the ranks of the department. When he was appointed chief, he was responsible for an authorized staff of 853 commissioned police officers and 276 professional staff employees. Since then, the department has grown to over 1,020 commissioned police officers and 342 professional staff employees.

The department’s announcement of his departure said, “He has led the department through incredibly difficult times, like the murder of Police Officer Blake Snyder and periods of civil unrest. He has also commanded through tremendous successes, like the passage of Proposition P, presidential debates, and the 100th PGA Championship.”

Belmar said in the news release, “It has been an honor to work with and for the women and men of the St. Louis County Police Department. The dedication, sacrifice, and bravery of those that work for this department is unmatched. The citizens and businesses of St. Louis County deserve nothing but the best, and I firmly believe they receive that from us every day.”

Former Missouri Chief Justice Ray Price, new chairman of the police board, thanked Belmar for leading “one of the finest police departments in the country.” And while he said the decision was the chief’s, he added, “I’m sure that he is mindful of all the events that have taken place.”