Chief Belmar discusses the balance between protecting free speech and citizen’s rights

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ST. LOUIS, MO (KTVI) - When activists took their message to St. Louis County Police headquarters, they complained about blocked access to a public building.

"We want in. We want in. We want in," activists chanted repeatedly on October 22nd, 2014. Protestor Bassem Masri yelled, 'The law must be upheld. Where`s her nametag? Who is she with?' Activists shouted together, 'The whole damn system is guilty as hell.'

Some protestors claimed authorities were trying to shut down their message. Masri also showed outrage in what he perceived to be the Media`s lack of understanding. He yelled at a reporter and cameraman, 'We will shut y`all down. Don`t think we won`t shut you down.'

Chief Jon Belmar said, 'We are probably the most open accessible police headquarters anywhere in the United States.'

Whether it`s the FBI building or any other police headquarters, you`re usually restricted to the front lobby if you don't have an escort. That`s not the case at St. Louis County Police headquarters. Belmar explained, 'Anybody who has legitimate business here, whether it`s to talk to internal affairs or whether it`s to get a background check can come into the building. But when people come in here for the express purpose to disrupt the daily business, we can really only abide by a short period of time because there are people in here who are looking for help.'

Belmar questioned what he said sometimes appears to be a vigilante squad. He said, 'Social media really ratchets things up. So not only do we have the ability to insult an officer, but some groups may have the ability to get that officers name drilled down and put certain information out there about where he lives, his family and her family.'

Like a police report from October 14th where the wife of a Highway Patrol officer reported activists shining flashlights into their North County home at night.

Reporter Chris Hayes asked Chief Belmar, 'Where is that line in the sand?'
Belmar answered, 'Well that line in the sand is becoming to the point where we have to recognize that we not only have a responsibility to protestors and their rights but the broader community, where are those? We have to have the opportunity to protect our officers from physical danger and we have to be able to at the same thing to protect people`s first amendment rights. Frankly it`s a very difficult balancing act.'

Despite that turmoil along with grueling schedules, which at one point included 12 hour shifts for 19 straight days, Belmar described his officers as 'good to go.' He explained, 'Because there`s a sense of teamwork. There`s a sense of togetherness... a sense of we are all in this together.'

Yet when Belmar says 'we're all in this together,' he's not only talking about his officers. He said, 'We have to have a certain amount of understanding, and that is everybody, whether we`re protestors, whether we`re members of the Ferguson community, whether we`re in West St. Louis County, I think we need to have that relationship where we really try to understand, because if we don`t have the ability to have relationships then than we don`t have trust.'

Belmar said that requires listening, which he did not equate with agreement. He said even he`s learned things during this crisis, just by asking questions and listening.

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