St. Louis County Police Department Sgt. Keith Wildhaber had more than 15 years of experience on the force when he applied for a promotion in 2014, and by all accounts, he was a strong candidate. But shortly after Wildhaber applied, he said he was informed that there was one thing standing in his way of becoming a lieutenant: his sexual orientation.
“The command staff has a problem with your sexuality,” a member of the St. Louis County Board of Police Commissioners allegedly told Wildhaber in February 2014. “If you ever want to see a white shirt [i.e., get a promotion], you should tone down your gayness.”
A jury recently sided with Wildhaber, who filed a discrimination lawsuit against St. Louis County in 2017, awarding him nearly $20 million on Friday — a judgment intended to “send a message,” the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.
County officials have heard the jurors’ message and now plan to take action, starting with the police department’s leadership.
“The time for leadership changes has come and change must start at the top,” St. Louis County Executive Sam Page said in a statement Sunday. Page said the process would begin with overhauling the police board, which oversees the police chief, adding that an announcement on the new appointments is “forthcoming.”
An attorney for Wildhaber did not respond to a request for comment late Sunday. The police department also could not be reached. The county’s police union said in a statement to The Washington Post on Monday that it has “a long history of fighting for equality for all of our members.”
“While we are extremely embarrassed of the alleged actions of some of our Department’s senior commanders, we look forward to the healing process that can begin to take place now that this has been heard in open court,” the statement said.
The jury’s decision marked the end of a week-long trial during which the police department was accused of having an anti-LGBT culture and a history of retaliation that ultimately led to Wildhaber being passed up for promotions 23 times, the Post-Dispatch reported. St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar and other members of the department denied the allegations of discrimination in testimony, but jurors decided in favor of Wildhaber.
“We wanted to send a message,” the jury foreman told reporters, according to the Post-Dispatch. “If you discriminate you are going to pay a big price. … You can’t defend the indefensible.”
Wildhaber joined the department as a security officer in 1994 after spending four years in the Army, the lawsuit said. He became a police officer in 1997 and rose through the department’s ranks, working as a patrolman and then a detective until 2011, when he was promoted to the rank of sergeant.
Three years later, Wildhaber, who had a clean disciplinary record and positive performance reviews, set his sights on lieutenant, according to the complaint. Wildhaber’s scores from a written test and another unspecified assessment ranked him third out of the 26 candidates vying for the position, placing him in a group of officers “considered to be first in line for promotions,” the suit said.
Then, while visiting a restaurant in February 2014 on a routine check, Wildhaber ran into John Saracino, who was a member of the county police board, the lawsuit said. That’s when Wildhaber alleged that Saracino made the remark about his “gayness.”
“I think I said, ‘I can’t believe we are having this conversation in 2014.’ It was devastating to hear,” Wildhaber testified Wednesday, according to the Post-Dispatch. “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.”
Saracino has denied that the conversation between him and Wildhaber ever took place, telling the Post-Dispatch in 2017, “I would never say anything like that.”
Still, the lawsuit alleged that Wildhaber, who continued to apply for open lieutenant positions, remained a sergeant while his colleagues were promoted.
In April 2016, Wildhaber filed a discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Missouri Commission on Human Rights, alleging that the county had “failed to promote him based on his sex/gender,” according to the lawsuit.
Instead of being promoted, in May that year, Wildhaber, says he was transferred to another precinct roughly 27 miles from his home, where he was assigned to work 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. Before filing the complaint, Wildhaber had been working the afternoon shift much closer to home, the suit said. Not long after his transfer, Wildhaber submitted a second complaint, this time tacking on a retaliation charge.
The suit alleged that Wildhaber was denied promotions because his “behavior, mannerisms, and/or appearance do not fit the stereotypical norms of what a ‘male’ should be.” It also alleged that switching Wildhaber to “an undesirable shift at an undesirable work location” after he filed the complaints amounted to retaliation.
During last week’s trial, Wildhaber’s attorneys called witnesses who testified that higher-ranking officers had either made inappropriate comments about the police sergeant or about members of the LGBT community in general.
One witness recalled a captain describing Wildhaber as “fruity” at an event in April 2015, according to the Post-Dispatch. The captain went on to say that Wildhaber was “way too out there with his gayness and he needed to tone it down” if he wanted to be promoted.
Another witness, who at one point was an executive assistant to Deputy Chief of Police Kenneth Gregory, said the department’s poor treatment of LGBT employees goes beyond Wildhaber. The witness said she once heard Gregory tell a commander that the Bible says homosexuality is “an abomination,” the Post-Dispatch reported. The witness told jurors that when her colleagues learned she identified as gay, she experienced “harassment, humiliation and embarrassment almost daily.”
On Sunday, St. Louis County leaders stressed that change is necessary to prevent future incidents. Councilwoman Lisa Clancy (D) also called for Belmar to resign.
“It is clear to me that there is a rampant culture of homophobia and also racism,” 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.”
Page did not specify Sunday whether Belmar would remain in his position, only noting that the chief and the current police board had “served the county faithfully for years.”