A jury has determined that St. Louis police denied a promotion to an officer because of his sexuality after he was told that “the command staff has a problem with your sexuality… you should tone down your gayness.”
Sergeant Keith Wildhaber brought a suit against the county police department after he was denied a promotion to lieutenant after having served since 1994. Wildhaber scored well on tests to obtain the promotion, but a member of the police civilian review board is alleged to have told him that his “gayness” was preventing his career advancement.
According to the lawsuit, Wildhaber was passed over for promotions on 23 separate occasions. Meanwhile, other officers were promoted over him, including one who was twice caught watching pornography at an elementary school.
After Wildhaber filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2016, the department transferred him to another office about 30 miles away. That meant a lengthy commute and a shift change that had him working from 8 p.m to 6 a.m.
Now, a jury has found that the department is guilty of both discrimination and retaliation, awarding Wildhaber $2.8 million in damages and $17 million in punitive damages.
“If you discriminate you are going to pay a big price,” the jury foreman told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “You can’t defend the indefensible.”
Missouri has no job protections for LGBTQ+ people. While agencies like the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission have recently recognized limited federal protections on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, the EEOC relies on an interpretation of federal civil rights law to do this. The Supreme Court is expected to rule on federal employment protections by June at the latest.
Evidence of discrimination was difficult for the police department to refute in Wildhaber’s case. A police widow named Donna Woodland testified that Wildhaber’s supervisor, Guy Means, called Wildhaber “fruity” and told her “he’s too gay” to be promoted.
Means claimed that he didn’t know Woodland, but the plaintiff produced pictures of the two of them together, including photos that sit on Means’ desk.
Another witness testified that the department has a culture of homophobia, and that she heard Deputy Chief of Police Kenneth Gregory call homosexuality “an abomination.”
The ruling is seen as yet another rebuke of St. Louis County police Chief Jon Belmar, who faced stern rebukes over his handling of the Ferguson protests.
“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 called for an overhaul of the local police board, and promised that there would be an announcement soon about new board members.
For his part, Belmar claimed that he didn’t know anything about Wildhaber’s transfer, and had requested more information about the denied promotions. Belmar also said that Wildhaber had tipped off a suspect about an investigation, but there’s no evidence to corroborate that claim.
The deciding factor in the case may have been Belmar’s confession in court that Wildhaber’s most recent promotion was denied because of the pending lawsuit. That admission seemed to seal the case for Wildhaber and lead to the eventual award.