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Embattled St. Louis County police chief says department will ‘move forward’ after $20 million verdict

Embattled St. Louis County police chief says department will ‘move forward’ after $20 million verdict


CLAYTON — St. Louis County police Chief Jon Belmar said on Tuesday he sees a jury’s $20 million verdict in a gay police sergeant’s discrimination lawsuit as an opportunity for improvement in his department — regardless of his personal opinion on the subject.

“Anytime you have a situation as significant as this, you have to look at these as an ability to change and get better,” he said in his first interview since the trial ended almost two weeks ago. “It doesn’t matter whether you agree with a decision that’s made, you have to understand certain people had a viewpoint and you have to respect that viewpoint.”

At the same time, the verdict could be getting more expensive: The sergeant’s attorneys filed a motion on Tuesday asking the court to force the county to pay more than $600,000 in attorney fees, arguing that the department had multiple opportunities to settle the case but instead “stonewalled” those efforts.

Sgt. Keith Wildhaber sued Belmar and county police in 2017 alleging the department had passed him over for promotion 23 times because he is gay. During the five-day trial, which ended Oct. 25, several witnesses described a culture of homophobia, bullying and retaliation. Department commanders took the stand to dispute those accounts.

St. Louis County Prosecutor Wesley Bell announced after the trial that he would open a perjury investigation into testimony.

County Executive Sam Page has since replaced two members of the Board of Police Commissioners, which is a civilian board that has the power to hire and fire the chief.

On Tuesday, Belmar said he planned to stay at the helm of the department.

“You could be in the middle of a bad game, but the coach isn’t going to leave at halftime,” he said. “I have a responsibility, is the way I look at it, to lead this department in a positive direction out of this.

“We have to learn from this. We have to move forward.”

Belmar on Tuesday focused his conversation on the department’s future, and resolutely declined to discuss issues such as:

• Perjury allegations.

• Union requests for arbitration in current contract negotiations in light of the discrimination and retaliation testimony.

• His reaction to the jury’s verdict.

• Opportunities that the county had to settle the case before it went to trial, including for $850,000 as recently as April.

Belmar said he plans to require implicit bias training for officers, as he did after the Ferguson unrest in 2014, as well as to seek an outside review of the department’s policies and procedures. The idea of putting officers through implicit bias training appeared to draw ire from the St. Louis County Police Association. In a tweet Wednesday, the union wrote: 

"So now all the troops have to go through more training because of the mistakes of a few select commanders...typical."

This review would focus on how the department can better address diversity, he said.

In 2014, the Department of Justice recommended that the department create a diversity committee to represent the concerns of police officers across all religions, races and sexual orientations. Belmar testified at the Wildhaber trial that he didn’t create a committee then because it wasn’t part of the original tenets of the agreement between the department and the DOJ.

After the Wildhaber verdict, the police board met in an emergency closed session and announced the department would create a diversity committee and would hire outside consultants.

Belmar said Tuesday that the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies soon would be visiting, and that he would ask it to review department policies on diversity.

“You have to move forward and say, ‘Hey, listen, regardless of how sound we thought our policies and decisions may have been, there’s room to improve and room to get better,’” Belmar said.

Meanwhile, Wildhaber attorneys Russ Riggan and Sam Moore on Tuesday asked Judge David Vincent III to double their normal hourly rates, saying they deserve $610,855 in fees as well as about $6,500 in reimbursement for litigation costs and expenses associated with the suit.

They said in their request that the county used “aggressive and contentious tactics,” offered nothing to resolve the case, and ignored their proposals for a resolution.

The verdict, they said, could be the largest of its kind in the history of the Missouri Human Rights Act and was “nothing short of exceptional.”

Asked to comment, the county counselor’s office said, “We don’t comment on pending litigation. The county counselor’s office will file a response to today’s filing.”

Read the coverage of the Wildhaber suit, trial and decisions after the verdict

County leaders call the Wildhaber suit, trial and verdict 'wake-up call.'

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Christine Byers is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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