A jury has awarded a Missouri police officer nearly $20 million after he was told to “tone down” his “gayness” if he ever wanted to be promoted, according to his lawsuit which has prompted calls for his department’s police chief to resign.
The St. Louis County Police Department was ordered on Friday to pay Sgt. Keith Wildhaber $19,970,000 in damages after he filed a lawsuit against the department that accused it of discrimination and retaliation.
“We wanted to send a message,” the jury foreman told reporters following the verdict, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “If you discriminate you are going to pay a big price. … You can’t defend the indefensible.”
Wildhaber was passed over 23 times for a promotion, despite “stellar” performance reviews and him qualifying for the lieutenant position based on the position’s criteria, according to a copy of his lawsuit obtained by HuffPost.
In 2014 he underwent a test and assessment for the position and was ranked No. 3 out of 26 total candidates. Of the top nine candidates to make consideration, seven of them were promoted, with Wildhaber being one of the two who were not. The other officer is said to have had disciplinary issues.
Wildhaber said he was eventually told by a member of the county’s Board of Police Commissioners, which oversees the police chief, that his sexuality was holding him back and he’d have to change to advance.
“The command staff has a problem with your sexuality. If you ever want to see a white shirt [i.e. get a promotion], you should tone down your gayness,” now-former Commissioner John Saracino is quoted as having told him.
Saracino has denied having such a conversation with Wildhaber, according to St. Louis’ Riverfront Times.
Wildhaber eventually filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and a month later he said he was reassigned from his afternoon shift to an overnight one at a precinct that was nearly 30 miles from his home.
He went on to file another complaint, this one for unlawful retaliation. His complaint accused the department of punishing him because he “does not fit the stereotypical norms of what a ‘male’ should be.”
Several witnesses during Wildhaber’s trial also testified of having overheard and experienced similar homophobic comments and retaliation within the police department, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.
St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar, who over his six years as police chief has weathered heavy criticism and lawsuits over his department’s handling of the Ferguson protests in 2014 and 2015, testified that Wildhaber’s lawsuit was a factor in him not being promoted, according to the Post-Dispatch.
County Councilwoman Lisa Clancy on Sunday called on Belmar to resign while accusing him of overseeing a “culture of rampant racism and homophobia.”
The following day, Roland Corvington, chairman of the county’s Board of Police Commissioners, called Wildhaber’s trial “embarrassing” and resigned after serving seven years on the board, the Dispatch reported.
“I sincerely believe the jury’s decision to award this verdict was a wake-up call to the department and its leadership.”
“I sincerely believe the jury’s decision to award this verdict was a wake-up call to the department and its leadership that they have to be mindful of what is said and how it’s said and to be mindful of their conduct when engaging with their subordinates, their peers and the public for that matter,” he said.
The five-member St. Louis County Board of Police Commissioners is a civilian oversight board that has the power to dismiss the police chief. It can also make recommendations on officer discipline, according to its website.
St. Louis County Executive Sam Page announced on Sunday that he will be naming new members to the St. Louis County Police Board this week.
“Our police department must be a place where every community member and every officer is respected and treated with dignity. Employment decisions in the department must be made on merit and who is best for the job,” Page said.
He also defended Belmar, saying the police chief has “served the county faithfully for years.”
Wildhaber’s attorneys have meanwhile called Friday’s verdict “historic.”
“His bravery and courage in standing up for what is right should be an inspiration for employees everywhere,” they said in a statement obtained by HuffPost. “We sincerely hope that this matter is concluded so that our client can have the closure he deserves.”
His attorneys declined to comment further on the verdict. A representative with the St. Louis County Police Department also declined to comment.
Criticism and calls for Belmar to resign have dogged the police department for years over its handling of the 2014 shooting death of unarmed teen Michael Brown.
The Justice Department back in 2015 reported that the police force’s “militarized” response to protests over Brown’s death was “inappropriate” and overly aggressive.
The police force, which responded to the protesters with snipers, tear gas and armored vehicles, was cited as having lacked “the training, leadership and culture necessary to truly engender community policing, and to build and sustain trusting relationships with the community.”
Missouri State Senator Maria Chappelle Nadal, who was among those protesting over Brown’s death, expressed disappointment on Monday that it took a $20 million settlement to make it “okay to ask for Belmar’s resignation.”