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St. Louis County Chief Regained Control of Ferguson Protests

Jim Salter and Alan Scher Zagier | 8/13/2015, 2:51 a.m.
As another protest on Ferguson's beleaguered West Florissant Avenue began to turn rowdy, Jon Belmar was among the first to ...
Thousands gathered in Ferguson, Mo to honor the anniversary of Mike Brown's death.

Ferguson, Mo. (AP) -- As another protest on Ferguson's beleaguered West Florissant Avenue began to turn rowdy, Jon Belmar was among the first to confront protesters.

Wearing neither a helmet nor a shield, the St. Louis County police chief strode directly toward demonstrators, telling them to get out of the street and urging calm.

"They're not going to take the street tonight," Belmar told an Associated Press reporter standing nearby. "That's not going to happen."

One night earlier, things turned dangerously violent when shots rang out and an 18-year-old black suspect was shot by police after he allegedly fired a handgun into an unmarked police van. Police used smoke to disperse the crowd. Three officers were injured.

The scene was markedly different on Monday night and early Tuesday, after the St. Louis County executive declared a state of emergency, a move that gave Belmar - instead of interim Ferguson Police Chief Andre Anderson - control of security.

This time, the police presence was far greater. Officers lined several blocks of West Florissant, rather than staying confined to a smaller area. And each time protesters left the sidewalk for the street, police converged.

Unlike Sunday, there was no gunfire, no injuries and no reports of looting or property damage.

More than 20 people were arrested. Police never deployed smoke or tear gas, though they were at times pelted with water bottles and rocks.

Reaction from protesters was mixed.

"I think they took command out of the hands of the new chief of Ferguson pretty fast," Charles Mayo, leader of a moderate protest group that has sought to improve relations between protesters and police, said Tuesday. "They put the response in Belmar's hands. Me personally, I think Belmar did a great job."

Ferguson resident and military veteran Hershel Myers Jr. criticized the police response as aggressive and unnecessary. He said Ferguson police should have been in charge.

"This is treatment we've been putting up with forever," Myers said. "It's always St. Louis County pushing us around and making up rules."

Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III disputed the notion that the county taking over was a negative reflection on Anderson and Ferguson police. It simply marked a change in tactic, he said.

County Executive Steve Stenger said the state of emergency could be lifted as soon as Wednesday, depending upon how Tuesday night unfolded.

Events marking the anniversary of Michael Brown's death were peaceful until Sunday night, when multiple shots were fired and Tyrone Harris Jr. was shot. He is accused of firing into an unmarked police van. The four plainclothes officers inside returned fire. Harris was struck multiple times and is hospitalized in critical condition.

"Obviously, there's a point at which you've got to put an end to it," Knowles said. "Property and life needed to be preserved. Their (police) tactics were going to have to change."

The protest on West Florissant marked the end of a day of protests around the region. The "Moral Monday" demonstrations had long been planned as part of the anniversary. Brown, 18, who was black and unarmed, was fatally shot during a confrontation with Ferguson officer Darren Wilson on Aug. 9, 2014.