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Experience is the key for new St. Louis County Police Chief

Jon Belmar, new St. Louis County Police Chief
Jon Belmar, new St. Louis County Police Chief

CLAYTON, Mo. — Jon Belmar rose through the ranks of the St. Louis County Police Department like anyone else — time plus ambition was the formula that allowed him to climb to Lieutenant Colonel and Commander of the Crimes Against Persons Division. Belmar says eesponsibility is the reason he accepted the top job as St. Louis County Police Chief.

“It’s an honor to lead this department,” he said. “It’s an honor to serve the people.”

Belmar knows he’s been handed the keys to a finely calibrated machine. His predecessor, Tim Fitch, left the department better than he found it. Crime is at a 40-year low and response times have improved to a 4.5-minute average. Belmar has shoes to fill. Twenty-seven years in the department tell Belmar this won’t last forever — even though things aren’t broken, there’s room for improvement.

Belmar’s goals are simple. He wants every officer in the department, all seven precincts plus two contract precincts in Wildwood and Fenton,  — from dispatchers to homicide detectives — to be focused on two primary objectives: ensure officers are getting to emergency calls as quickly as possible with the right resources for the job and proactively work to prevent crime.

In his experience, Belmar knows there may be unpopular solutions to problems. Part of the reason call times improved is that Finch instituted a policy of addressing those times in command meetings. Sometimes commanders could accurately pinpoint where improvements need to be made. Often it’s the case where circumstances are outside of their control.

Belmar says he’ll be looking at everything — how beats are constructed, what officers are working where, the differences between each precinct — in order to get resources in the proper place to make the department as efficient as possible.

The second of those goals is where data comes in handy. Belmar says he wishes he had the access to information that officers have now when he started as a patrolman in the 1980s in Affton. At the tip of their fingers, in every squad car computer, is a wealth of statistics that help officers prevent crime.

An unlikely example: officers check commodities report, specifically metals like copper and brass. As the price of copper increases so does theft, with junkies looking to convert scrap into drugs.

“Apparently they look at that too,” Belmar said, referring to criminals.

There’s no substitute for experience. Belmar said one of the busiest days on the calendar is Easter Sunday.

“Think about it, everybody’s around,” he said. “Suddenly you start to get sick of your uncle.”

However, the higher Belmar rises, the less he controls. The job that has most prepared him for Chief of Police was when he was Captain of the Affton Precinct for five years, he says. It was on a smaller scale but the delegation of authority was the same. He was also apt at communicating with other law enforcement agencies and community groups.

“Things happen that are out of your control,” he said. “That’s where experience matters.”

This can be stressful. In the late 1990s, Belmar was in charge of Special Operations, including the SWAT teams. He became the head of the arson and bomb units for the department after that, after he passed the FBI bomb training.

“They hand you a stick of dynamite and a knife and you have to know what to do,” Belmar said one particular part of the training.

He said watching the teams go to work was more stressful than gearing for a raid himself.

“You’re dealing with dangerous situation and dangerous people,” he said. “You can’t even have half a bad day.”

Comparatively, politics will be easy. A lot of Belmar’s first week on the job was attending a gauntlet of meetings. Again, Belmar’s experience as a captain opened the political door, dealing with the public and law enforcement agencies.

“We can get the temporary impression that we’re by ourselves,” Belmar said of his positive relationship with the public.

What’s new is that Belmar is no longer answering to someone in the established police hierarchy. There’s comfort in the chain of command; his superior knew what it was like to walk a beat, investigate a case, or run a precinct. Now, he’s answering to the St. Louis County Executive and County Council – politicians, most of which have no police background.

“When its negative, its politics; when its positive, its relationships,” Belmar said. “99.9 percent of the time, everybody works well together.”

Belmar’s responsibility is to explain the abilities of the department, what it can and can’t do, and keep it running smoothly.