A jury has decided a gay cop in St Louis, Missouri, should be awarded $19.9million after he was discriminated against because of his sexuality.
Keith Wildhaber joined the St. Louis County police in 1997. Although he progressed to the level of sergeant he did not go any further, despite receiving excellent written reviews. He tried repeatedly to become a lieutenant but was passed over for promotion 23 times.
The force was aware of his sexuality. He says it even asked him to act as a liaison with the LGBTQ community in 2014, although this was not a formalized role. He says he began to pick up on hints that his sexuality might be a problem with some higher up.
Then, in 2014, he says he was invited to a chat with John Saracino, a former member of the department’s civilian police board. Sitting in a restaurant, he says Saracino said: “The command staff has a problem with your sexuality … If you ever want to see a white shirt [i.e., get a promotion], you should tone down your gayness.”
During his court case last week, Wildhaber said he’d never been told anything like this before and was shocked to be having such a conversation in 2014. Saracino denied making this comment.
When Wildhaber continued to be turned down for promotion, he filed a discrimination complaint against the department with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Shortly after filing the complaint, he was switched from afternoon shifts to a midnight shift 30 miles from where he lived. He believed this was in retaliation for filing the complaint.
The jury agreed with him.
In its ruling Friday, it awarded him $1.9 million in actual damages and $10 million in punitive damages. It also awarded him $999,000 in actual damages and $7 million in punitive damages for the retaliation claim.
Afterward, the foreman of the jury told reporters the discrimination and retaliation was no acceptable, reports St Louis-Post Dispatch.
“We wanted to send a message. ‘If you discriminate you are going to pay a big price. … You can’t defend the indefensible’.”
Following the ruling, council leaders have said that the police department needs to be shaken up and say some should lose their jobs. Councilwoman Lisa Clancy is among those calling for Police Chief Jon Belmar to consider resigning.
“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,” said the county police union in a statement.