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A police sergeant in St. Louis, Mo., has been awarded $20 million after he was repeatedly denied a promotion for being gay.
Sgt. Keith Wildhaber sued the St. Louis County police department after he was passed over 23 times for promotion, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports.
Wildhaber, who joined the department in 1997 and had received positive written reviews, said he was also transferred to a different precinct in retaliation after he filed a discrimination complaint with the EEOC.
During the trial, Wildhaber accused former St. Louis County Police Board of Commissioners member John Saracino of telling him he should “tone down his gayness” in order to progress to lieutenant. He said the comment felt like he had “been punched in the gut.”
“I think I said, ‘I can’t believe we are having this conversation in 2014.’ It was devastating to hear,” Wildhaber said. “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.”
Donna Woodland, the widow of a former county police officer, also testified that she had heard police Capt. Guy Means call Wildhaber “fruity.”
She added that Means had told her at an event in 2015 that Wildhaber was “way too out there with his gayness and he needed to tone it down if he wanted [to be promoted].”
Means testified that he didn’t know Woodland and couldn’t pick her out of a crowd.
She responded by producing photos of them together at the event, and a receipt for a framed picture she had gifted to him because of their friendship — evidence the jury used to justify deciding in favor of Wildhaber.
They ultimately handed Wildhaber $19.9 million in damages — $11.9 million for being discriminated against, and $8 million for being retaliated against for filing a complaint with the EEOC.
“We wanted to send a message,” the jury foreman said after the trial had ended. “If you discriminate you are going to pay a big price…. You can’t defend the indefensible.”
Wildhaber’s attorney, Russ Riggan, said the county “should be ashamed. Our community deserves better.”
Police Chief Jon Belmar — who testified that Wildhaber’s lawsuit had been used to justify denying promotions — faced calls to resign after the trial concluded, while County Executive Sam Page was urged by two members of the county council to replace the members of the Board of Police Commissioners.
“Belmar should resign,” Councilwoman Lisa Clancy said. “It’s clear to me that there’s a culture of rampant racism and homophobia within the [police department], and this latest incident is now going to cost us $20 million.
“This culture does a massive disservice to the many men and women who wear the badge every day and are truly there to serve and protect us all, no matter of our race or sexual orientation,” she continued.
St. Louis County Prosecutor Wesley Bell said his office would be investigating the trial’s transcripts to review whether perjury charges should be filed against police commanders whose testimony was refuted by evidence.
In a statement, the county police union said, “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.”
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