St. Louis County, MO – The future of the leadership of the St. Louis County Police Department is up in the air after a jury awarded $20 million to a police sergeant who claimed he wasn’t promoted because he was gay.
St. Louis County Police Sergeant Keith Wildhaber had nearly 15 years of experience and scored third out of 26 sergeants on the lieutenant’s exam the first time he was passed over for promotion, The Washington Post reported.
After he had been passed up for promotion 23 times, Sgt. Wildhaber filed a lawsuit alleging discrimination – and later retaliation – against him for being openly gay.
The sergeant’s lawsuit said that he had served in the U.S. Army for four years before he joined the St. Louis Police Department originally as a security officer in 1994, The Washington Post reported.
He became a law enforcement officer for the department in 1997 and quickly worked his way up through the ranks from patrolman to detective and then, in 2011, to sergeant.
So in 2014, Sgt. Wildhaber said it came as a shock to him when a member of the St. Louis County Board of Police Commissioners – the entity that oversees the police department – told him that his sexuality was what was holding him back on the police force, The Washington Post reported.
“The command staff has a problem with your sexuality,” the board member allegedly told Sgt. Wildhaber in February of 2014. “If you ever want to see a white shirt [i.e., get a promotion], you should tone down your gayness.”
The sergeant was crushed by the information, according to The Washington Post.
“I think I said, ‘I can’t believe we are having this conversation in 2014.’ It was devastating to hear,” he testified. “We had never spoken of my sexuality before, and I thought he was just trying to be helpful to me and looking out for my best interest in the promotional process.”
The lawsuit said Sgt. Wildhaber continued to apply for lieutenant openings with no luck, and in 2016, he filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the Missouri Commission on Human Rights, The Washington Post reported.
But instead of being promoted, the sergeant was transferred to another precinct almost 30 miles from home in what is known colloquially as a “geography lesson,” and stuck on the midnight shift.
A number of witnesses testified about how police administration officials had made inappropriate and anti-gay remarks.
One witness said a captain had called Sgt. Wildhaber “fruity” and said he was “way too out there” with his gayness to make lieutenant, The Washington Post reported.
A former executive assistant to St. Louis County Deputy Police Chief Kenneth Gregory testified that she had overheard her boss saying that homosexuality was “an abomination.”
Sgt. Wildhaber’s attorney, Russ Riggan, said the most damning evidence and “best sound bite” in the trial came from the police chief himself, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.
St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar testified that the sergeant’s lawsuit had been a factor in denying him a promotion.
Chief Belmar also tried to claim that Sgt. Wildhaber had tipped off a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) target but then admitted he had never launched an internal affairs investigation into the incident, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.
The jury deliberated for only three hours after the week-long trial.
They returned a verdict that awarded Sgt. Wildhaber $1.9 million in actual damages and $10 million in punitive damages on the discrimination allegation, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.
Additionally, the jury awarded the sergeant another $999,000 in actual damages and $7 million in punitive damages for the department’s retaliation against him after he filed his complaint with the EEOC.
“We wanted to send a message,” the jury foreman told reporters after the verdict. “If you discriminate you are going to pay a big price. … You can’t defend the indefensible.”
On Sunday evening, a St. Louis County elected official began calling for Chief Belmar’s resignation, The Washington Post reported.
“It is clear to me that there is a rampant culture of homophobia and also racism,” St. Louis County Councilwoman Lisa Clancy told KSDK. “The council hears about this almost every week at our council meetings, but also within the community, that there’s a lot of issues within our police department right now.”
On Monday, the chairman of the St. Louis County Board of Police Commissioners resigned, according to KMOV.
The board is made up of five members, all of whom were appointed by the last county executive.
Current St. Louis County Executive Sam Page posted a statement to Twitter on Sunday that said he was about to make some big changes for the county’s law enforcement.
“The time for leadership change has come and change must start at the top,” Page tweeted. “We will begin with the appointment of new members to the police board, which oversees the police chief. An announcement on those appointments is forthcoming. Change must be thoughtful and orderly so that the good police services that our county residents receive are not interrupted.”