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Belmar Sees Opportunity In Discrimination Verdict Against St. Louis County Police

St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar speaks with a St. Louis Public Radio reporter at his office in downtown Clayton on Tuesday. Nov. 5, 2019
File photo I Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar speaks with a St. Louis Public Radio reporter at his office in downtown Clayton on Tuesday.

St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar says he was surprised by a nearly $20 million verdict against his department for discriminating against a gay police sergeant.

“Without getting too much into a conversation about the verdict, yes, I was surprised by it,” Belmar said Tuesday. “But I would say that we have to take a look at these things as an opportunity to move forward.”

A jury on Oct. 25 agreed with Sgt. Keith Wildhaber that the department had refused to promote him because of his sexual orientation, and that he faced retaliation after complaining. The verdict prompted County Executive Sam Page to promise“serious change” at the department. The chairman of the Board of Police Commissioners resigned, and the remaining members voted for an outside review.

Page has since nominated two new people to serve on the board, which provides civilian oversight to the department. Former Missouri Supreme Court Judge Ray Price would replace Roland Corvington, the departed chairman. Michelle Schwerin, an attorney at the law firm Capes Sokol, would take the spot currently held by Laurie Westfall. Westfall is serving on an expired term, as are the other three members. Page is expected to announce additional changes soon.

Belmar said he had not talked with Page specifically about what the county executive meant by serious change, but said the two were “on the same page.” Page has expressed confidence in Belmar, telling 5 On Your Sidethat “he is the right man for the job.”

“Leaders have a responsibility to lead through crisis,” Belmar said. “That is a basic tenet of leadership to do that. At some point, we are going to work our way through this. My mission, my demand, is that we are better off because of that when we get through that.”

The department has never faced a lawsuit from one of its own officers alleging discrimination, Belmar said, and “we want to make sure that it doesn’t happen again. And I think, again, we have the ability to do that.”

Belmar has already asked the county council for $100,000 for anti-bias training this winter, on top of ongoing education his officers receive.

“But training is not the only piece out there,” he said. “We talked about a diversity committee, we’re going to initiate that in the police department. We talked about an outside review by the Board of Police Commissioners, I think that’s important.”

Belmar disputed the idea that it took a verdict against the county for the department to focus on its blind spots when it comes to discrimination, saying officers have always engaged with various communities.

“When you take a look at the track record on the police department of the way that we've approached issues like this, when you take a look at the diversity on this police department, especially regarding hiring, I think you would find that it is a very forward-looking, progressive organization,” he said. 

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann

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Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.