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St. Louis County police chief testifies he didn't promote gay sergeant because of allegation in FBI case

St. Louis County police Chief Jon Belmar leaves county court on Friday, Oct. 25, 2019 after testifying in the discrimination case brought by Sgt. Keith Wildhaber. Wildhaber, who is gay, alleges that he was repeatedly passed over for promotions. Belmar testified Friday that sergeant had tipped off the target of an FBI investigation, and for that he was not promoted in 2016. Photo by Robert Cohen, rcohen@post-dispatch.com.

CLAYTON — A member of the St. Louis County Council on Sunday called on Police Chief Jon Belmar to resign. She and another member called on County Executive Sam Page to replace members of the Board of Police Commissioners after a jury handed down a nearly $20 million judgment against the county on Friday in a discrimination case.

And after a trial that saw testimony by police commanders refuted by other evidence, Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell said on Sunday that his office would review all trial transcripts and exhibits to determine whether perjury charges could be filed.

“Upholding the integrity of the judicial process and law enforcement is of the upmost importance,” he said in a text.

The police board, not the county executive, holds the power to fire a police chief. Page can replace the entire board because, as of Friday, all five members will be on expired terms. In a statement on Sunday, Page said those appointments were “forthcoming.”

Under the county charter, any appointments would require confirmation by the County Council and would take effect in 20 days, although a majority of circuit judges could veto them. Page did not indicate whether he thought Belmar, who has been chief since January 2014, should remain in his job.

Under state law, a police chief can be removed for just cause with a two-thirds majority vote of the governing body, meaning at least four votes of the county police board. But under the county charter, three votes could remove a chief, who would have the right to a public hearing first. It was unclear Sunday which regulation would govern the situation.

“The current police board and current police chief have served the county faithfully for years,” Page wrote. “The time for leadership changes has come and change must start at the top.” He said change must be “thoughtful and orderly so that the good police services that our county residents receive are not disrupted.”

Others were more pointed.

“Belmar should resign,” Councilwoman Lisa Clancy, D-5th District, said. “It’s clear to me that there’s a culture of rampant racism and homophobia within the (police department), and this latest incident is now going to cost us $20 million. This culture does a massive disservice to the many men and women who wear the badge every day and are truly there to serve and protect us all, no matter of our race or sexual orientation.”

She added, “It’s time for new appointments on the police board as soon as possible. Our community has needs that I feel are not being met by the current commissioners, who have failed to be responsive to the concerns the community has raised about profiling, racism and police misconduct.”

A jury in St. Louis County Circuit Court on Friday agreed with Sgt. Keith Wildhaber, who alleged the police department had discriminated against him because he is gay. The case included testimony about him being passed over 23 times for promotion and being transferred in retaliation for filing a federal EEOC complaint.

Testimony by county police commanders denying bias was contradicted by other evidence. The jury was angry that a police captain accused of uttering homophobic comments to a police widow at a fundraiser testified that he didn’t know the woman, who later produced photos of them in a friendly embrace at the event where she says he made the comments.

Belmar himself testified that Wildhaber’s lawsuit was a factor in his not being promoted.

‘Need new voices’

Belmar did not respond to a call or text from a reporter on Sunday. A police spokesman responded in an email that the county’s legal staff was “the most appropriate destination for your inquiries.”

The award is equal to nearly one-seventh of the department’s proposed 2020 budget of $145 million, including all sources of revenue; it would largely be paid from the county’s self-insurance pool.

Even before the Wildhaber verdict, activists had been calling on Page to replace the police board. Page has said he planned to make appointments thoughtfully and has pointed to the 250 people serving on expired terms and 100 vacant seats on various boards, a problem he inherited from his predecessor Steve Stenger.

In his statement on Sunday, Page said the police department “must be a place where every community member and every officer is respected and treated with dignity. Employment decisions in the department must be made on merit and who is best for the job.”

Councilwoman Kelli Dunaway, D-2nd District, said she was “so happy that a jury of our peers came to the conclusion that they did. I think we all need to work harder to make the culture at the St. Louis County Police Department more inclusive, and I hope the council and the county government and police can all work together to make people feel more welcome there.”

“A jury found a homophobic culture and we see every week at County Council meetings that people don’t feel safe and included by our police department,” Dunaway said. “I do think we need some changes to the police commission. We clearly aren’t making progress with the current board. I think we need new voices and a clear perspective in this conversation.”

Councilman Tim Fitch, R-3rd District, who served as the county police chief for five years before retiring in 2014, said he was “surprised at the dollar amount, not the jury’s verdict.”

“It’s not good, but I respect their decision,” he said. Whether the leadership at the department should change, he said, was up to Page, not the council.

“Obviously there are some issues that need to be addressed. The charter makes it clear that the Board of Police Commissioners is in charge of the department, so the real question is does the county executive believe the board … can lead the department?”

While the council is responsible for funding the police department, Fitch said he would “never want to penalize the department by using the budget, because that will hurt the people they serve. However, I think there has to be some discussion of the dollar amount of the verdict and how it will be paid, if it stands. I’ll assume the county can appeal the dollar amount, but let’s keep in mind that every penny of the amount awarded is in tax dollars.”

Councilwoman Rita Heard Days, D-1st District, said she was “surprised not in the fact that we were found liable, but in the fact that it went as far as it did. There is no place in county government … for that type of attitude toward the LGBT community. It’s just not appropriate. We need to do whatever it is to make sure that this does not happen again.”

As for Belmar, Days said his “reputation is in question. We have sat through, since I have been elected (in August), several charges or allegations against our police officers, and I don’t know what followup has been taken.”

Days said it was up to Page to make changes to the county’s boards and commissions, noting that he has recently sent several appointments to the council for confirmation, although none for the police board.

“We can only act on the appointment that he sends us,” she said.

‘We heard the jury’

The council’s presiding officer, Ernie Trakas, R-6th District, said he was not ready to comment on the issue on Sunday. Council members Rochelle Walton Gray and Mark Harder could not be reached.

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The St. Louis County Police Association, said in a statement on Sunday that its members looked forward to a healing process, “now that this has been heard in open court.”

The association pointed out that it has been engaged in contract negotiations with the department. “Central to the delay in reaching an agreement has been the Department’s overt unwillingness to agree to protect our organization’s ability to fight against and remedy internal discrimination and retaliation.”

Roland Corvington, chairman of the police board, in a text sent Sunday, said the police board plans to meet with the County Counselor’s office this week to discuss the actual and punitive damages awarded by the jury “and the legal options before us.”

He continued: “We heard the jury. This week, the Board will also review attendant issues raised by the trial related to personnel and the organizational health of the department. The Board will formulate an appropriate course of action.”

Asked whether he thought the department discriminated against gay people, whether Belmar could continue to lead, and what changes needed to be made, Corvington did not respond.

Corvington, a retired special agent in charge of the FBI in St. Louis, came under fire from civil rights activists earlier this month for cutting off an alleged rape victim who exceeded her two minutes to speak in the public portion of the board’s monthly meeting and telling the crying woman she would be escorted out of the meeting if she kept talking. Corvington said he did nothing wrong in telling the woman her time was up.

The police board under Corvington’s leadership has drawn criticism this fall, and not just from the left. At a county Charter Commission hearing on Oct. 16, Chris Grahn-Howard, the council’s budget policy coordinator and a former deputy legislative director to conservative Missouri House Speaker Tim Jones, said the police board “is insulated and isolated and has not acted as it is intended.”

The Rev. Lawrence Wooten, the police board’s vice chairman, and board members Mark Gaertner and Art Johnson could not be reached.

Police board member Laurie Westfall said: “I really haven’t talked to anyone about (the verdict) and I really don’t have a comment on it. I just don’t feel comfortable commenting on that. I have the highest respect for the chief, but I didn’t attend the trial, so I can’t comment on that. But thanks for calling.”

This story was updated to correct when board members' term expired. Four board members are on expired terms and the fifth member's term expires on Friday.

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