Missouri Jury Award Sparks Questions About Police Culture
NOEL KING, HOST:
One of the biggest police forces in this country is in disarray after a jury awarded a sergeant in St. Louis nearly $20 million in damages. This officer said that he couldn't move up the ranks of the St. Louis County Police Department because he was gay. St. Louis Public Radio's Jason Rosenbaum has been following the story.
JASON ROSENBAUM, BYLINE: Sergeant Keith 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 denied. He claimed that's because he's gay. He testified that a member of the police board told him to tone down his gayness. And when he lodged formal complaints, Wildhaber also testified that he faced retaliation. Last month, a St. Louis County jury awarded him nearly $20 million, shocking many here. At the first County Council meeting after the verdict, the presiding officer had trouble keeping order.
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ROSENBAUM: One of the public speakers, Natasha Troupe, wasn't just upset over the amount of public money at stake. She had broader complaints about the police department.
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NATASHA TROUPE: What do y'all want? Y'all don't want black folks. You don't want gay folks. You don't want nobody. Everybody got a agenda up here, but not the agenda for the community.
ROSENBAUM: Greg Nevins is with Lambda Legal, which specializes in these kinds of suits. He cites lawsuits by police officers and firefighters in Rhode Island and Ohio over discrimination over their sexual orientation or gender identity. But Nevins says Wildhaber's payout is one of the largest ever awarded in such a case.
GREG NEVINS: 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.
ROSENBAUM: What makes the Wildhaber verdict even more significant is Missouri itself. There are no statewide anti-discrimination laws focused on sexual orientation and gender identity. 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. Steph Perkins heads the group PROMO, which lobbies for LGBTQ rights in Missouri. Perkins says the state needs more explicit anti-discrimination laws.
STEPH PERKINS: You shouldn't be expected to be treated poorly just so you can do your job.
ROSENBAUM: St. Louis County officials have not decided whether to appeal the roughly $20 million verdict, and Sergeant Wildhaber is not talking to reporters. Meanwhile, elected leaders and residents are demanding policing changes. St. Louis County Councilwoman Lisa Clancy wants Police Chief Jon Belmar to resign and for county government to adopt rigorous anti-bias training.
LISA CLANCY: Our mission in St. Louis County is one about equity and inclusion. And what was portrayed last week about what's happening within our St. Louis County Police Department shows some pretty big breaches of that mission.
ROSENBAUM: Chief Belmar is still on the job and, at least for now, not commenting publicly. When he was questioned at trial, Belmar said Wildhaber's lack of advancement had to do with his conduct as an officer, not his sexual orientation. St. Louis County executive Sam Page is appointing new members to the board overseeing the county police department. He's talked to the chief about making significant changes.
SAM PAGE: I think what he's doing to try and implement some of the changes that we've requested is important, and I want to empower him to drive some of that needed change in messaging in the police department.
ROSENBAUM: An outside agency is slated to review the county police department, including how it promotes officers. And County Executive Page is hoping that new police board members will help police institute a more tolerant atmosphere moving forward. For NPR News, I'm Jason Rosenbaum in St. Louis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.