Despite the police chief’s efforts, a jury determined Friday that Sgt. Keith Wildhaber was denied his ‘white shirt’ (or a promotion to lieutenant), due to him being ‘too gay.’ Now, the St. Louis County Police Department owes him almost $20 million in damages, according to St. Louis Today.
Sgt. Wildhaber claimed that homophobia was rampant in the police force, and specifically named police chief Jon Belmar as the enforcer of this culture.
As we reported in 2017, Wildhaber has been with the department since 1994, receiving top marks on all the tests and reviews needed to secure a promotion to lieutenant. A member of the police civilian review board allegedly told him that if he wanted to go any further in the department, “The command staff has a problem with your sexuality… you should tone down your gayness.”
Wildhaber was reportedly passed up for 23 promotions. He was transferred across the county once he filed his complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2016, claiming his civil rights were violated. He subsequently filed more claims based on the department’s actions.
Jurors found in favor of Wildhaber on both the discrimination and retaliation counts. They determined that $2.8 million in damages and $17 million in punitive damages were owed to him.
The jury foreman said after the case that they wanted to send a message” with their ruling. “If you discriminate you are going to pay a big price.… You can’t defend the indefensible,” he said, according to St. Louis Today.
It appears to be another major hit toward Belmar’s career and tenure as chief, as he has previously been disciplined for his poor departmental oversight during the Ferguson protests. He also has several other EEOC complaints and lawsuits to deal with, including one from Nikki Brown, a Black women police officer who wrote her doctoral dissertation on the culture in the St. Louis Police, and the lack of accountability there.
Wildhaber and his attorney, Russ Riggan, put on several witnesses over the last five days, including a police widow, Donna Woodland. She testified that Wildhaber’s current supervisor, Capt. Guy Means, had called Wildhaber ‘fruity’ in 2015 and told her he was “Never going to get a white shirt. He’s too gay.”
Means denied knowing her — that was proven to be a lie, when a large cut out of several pictures of the two of them were produced, some of which sit on Means’ desk.
Riggan told the jurors, “[Means] blatantly perjured himself.… How credible are the rest of their witnesses? You don’t think they sent other people in here to lie? They will stop at nothing to bury this case.”
The uncle of a convicted drug dealer that Belmar has associated with and vouched for also testified. He told Wildhaber, “The command staff has a problem with your sexuality,” based on his communications with Belmar and other officers. Riggan also produced evidence of other officers who were promoted over Wildhaber, including one who was caught watching pornography in his post at elementary schools – twice.
The defense by Belmar and the department claimed that Wildhaber wasn’t being promoted because he was a racist and he was allegedly corrupt. Wildhaber was denied promotion and suspended in 2014, due to missing reports from his time in 2008 serving as a detective.
Belmar testified that he was being targeted because he was the ‘bearer of bad news’ in denying Wildhaber’s promotions. He testified that Wildhaber’s recent transfer was done without his knowledge and he ordered Wildhaber’s superiors to write a memo explaining their decision.
Belmar also said that in 2016, the department denied Wildhaber a promotion because he tipped off a money launderer about an FBI investigation, but there was no evidence recorded that the FBI or police department ever spoke to, or tried to discipline, Wildhaber regarding this. The accused was eventually convicted in 2018.
All of these claims were presented with no physically recorded evidence.
In the end, Belmar did admit under oath that the lawsuit by Wildhaber was a factor in deciding his most recent promotion, effectively sealing the case for the plaintiffs.