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Gay Discrimination Verdict Prompts Reflection Within St. Louis County — And Calls For Change

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 on Tuesday in Clayton.

Sgt. Keith Wildhaber’s nearly $20 million jury verdict hit St. Louis County government like a lightning bolt. 

The huge award sparked internal and external scrutiny of one of Missouri’s largest law enforcement agencies about how it treats LGBTQ employees. It’s also prompted a debate about whether Missouri should pass more explicit laws to protect employees from discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

While St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar remains in his post, both he and the elected county leadership have said that the decision could be a catalyst for substantial changes to how the agency is run. 

And for St. Louis County Executive Sam Page, Wildhaber’s win in court was a wakeup call for county government. 

“The changes we make must be serious,” Page said a recent county council meeting. “We must address our challenges boldly and unambiguously.” 

Breaking ground

Michelle Schwerin, an attorney at Capes Sokol, answers questions from St. Louis County Council members on Monday. Nov. 4, 2019 Nov. 4, 2019
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Michelle Schwerin, an attorney at Capes Sokol, answers questions from St. Louis County Council members on Monday.

Wildhaber was with the St. Louis County Police Department for more than 15 years when he decided to apply for a promotion to lieutenant, which was continually denied. He argued that’s because he’s gay — pointing to, among other things, an instance in which a then-member of the board that oversees the county police department told him to “tone down his gayness.” He also said he faced retaliation when he lodged formal complaints.

Belmar testified that Wildhaber’s lack of advancement was related to his conduct as an officer — not his sexual orientation. But a jury agreed with Wildhaber, awarding him nearly $20 million.

“We are ecstatic for our client, and it has been an honor and a privilege to have been part of this historic verdict,” Wildhaber’s attorneys Russ Rigan and Sam Moore said in a statement. “The jury acted as the conscience of the community and spoke loud and clear in its verdict. We sincerely hope that this matter is concluded so that our client can have the closure he deserves.”

St. Louis County officials have not decided whether to appeal the verdict. But Page did appoint two new members to the Board of Police Commissioners, which oversees the department. And an outside agency is slated to review the department, including how it promotes officers.

One of those newcomers to the board, Michelle Schwerin, said there’s much to do in the weeks ahead.

“The two pressing issues that I identify are the department’s relationship with the community and the police department’s internal morale,” said Schwerin, an attorney with Capes Sokol and the first millennial to be appointed to the board.

Some elected officials and residents want more wholesale changes. Councilwoman Lisa Clancy, who called on Belmar to step down, wants to see a rigorous effort to stamp out bias in the police department and all of county government.

“Throughout county government we’ve got a lot of work to do to really stand for equity and inclusion,” said Clancy, D-Maplewood. “And this is an opportunity that all of us can learn from to be better and better serve the citizens here in St. Louis County and in our whole region.”

Belmar said Tuesday he is committed to the job and wants to improve the department. He has requested more money for his officers to undergo anti-bias training.

“I’m proud of the diversity on this police department. I’ve been proud of it for a long time,” Belmar said. “I think the members of this police department are proud of that diversity. But again, we need to be in a position to where we understand that even though that is part of our value system in that we believe it and the majority believe it, if there’s anybody who questions that — then again we have to get better.”

Nationwide impact

St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar (center) listens to remarks by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions. (03/31/17, Eagleton courthouse)
Credit File photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
The Wildhaber verdict is one of the largest ever awarded for a public safety officer who sued for sexual orientation or gender identity discrimination.

Wildhaber’s verdict is gaining notice beyond St. Louis County’s borders.

Greg Nevins, of Lambda Legal, a LGBTQ law and advocacy organization based in New York, says the roughly $20 million awarded to Wildhaber is one of the largest amounts he’s ever seen in a case where a LGBTQ public safety officer sued for discrimination.

“A lot of times the people who are courageous enough to fight for us and keep us safe are also able to fight for themselves and break new ground,” Nevins said.

Missouri does not have explicit protections against sexual orientation discrimination. Wildhaber successfully argued in court that he was discriminated against because of his gender, saying he faced barriers at work because he didn’t conform to stereotypes about how a man should act. 

“This verdict shows it’s not just an acceptable theory, but you can actually win a large verdict. This case may be a catalyst, because large verdicts garner larger press attention. And so people will realize that right in the heartland of America, that this argument does have resonance,” Nevins said. 

Steph Perkins, executive director of PROMO, a statewide LGBTQ advocacy organization, said Missouri needs more specific laws against sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination to prompt employers or landlords to think twice before engaging in prejudicial behavior.

“We’ve definitely heard instances of other police officers going through something similar,” Perkins said. “Sometimes they feel like this is the price they pay to serve in the way they feel called to serve as officers and as law enforcement. But that shouldn’t be the case. You shouldn’t be expected to be treated poorly just so you can do your job.”

Some business groups have opposed adding sexual orientation and gender identity to state anti-discrimination statutes, contending it could open businesses to more lawsuits. 

In any case, Perkins said the county police department needs to regain trust with the LGBTQ community, adding, “If you have an internal bias, that’s going to present itself when you have interactions with people who you really need to help.”

“Discrimination almost always doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It doesn’t always just happen because of one person,” Perkins said. “It often happens because there’s an environment that allows that discrimination to happen and be persistent. Even if one person resigns or leavesthere are still so many things that have to happen in order to create a better environment for LGBTQ law enforcement.”

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

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Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.
Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.