CLAYTON — After an emergency, two-hour closed session, the four remaining St. Louis County police board members announced Tuesday that they would be cooperating “fully” with a perjury investigation as well as hiring an outside firm to analyze the department’s hiring practices.
The announcement followed Friday’s $20 million verdict against the county in a civil lawsuit in which Sgt. Keith Wildhaber accused the department of discriminating against him because he is gay.
St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell announced Sunday that his office would be launching an investigation into whether any officers perjured themselves during the trial.
Donna Woodland, a police widow and police charity supporter, showed the jury a picture of herself hugging and smiling with Capt. Guy Means in a photo booth at a charity event in 2015.
She testified that Means told her Wildhaber was “fruity” and would never get promoted because he was “too out there” with his sexuality. He testified that he didn’t know her and couldn’t pick her out of the jury box if she were sitting there. He also said he didn’t recall attending the event.
The police board said its outside review will include a look at hiring practices, inclusion in the department, the department’s policies and procedures, and promotional processes.
The five-member board, appointed by the county executive, is the department’s civilian oversight body and has the power to hire and fire the police chief. On Monday, its chairman, Roland Corvington, resigned effective immediately. Commissioner Laurie Westfall said County Executive Sam Page’s office called to tell her she would soon be replaced.
Four of the five board members’ terms have expired. A fifth expires Friday.
A spokesman for Page said he plans to provide the names of new appointments Friday for inclusion in next week’s County Council agenda. Once the council approves the names, they can be seated in 20 days.
Any commissioner who is replaced would continue to serve in the interim. A majority of circuit judges could also veto any appointment.
Page has not said how many members of the five-member commission he plans to replace or whether he wants the board to fire Chief Jon Belmar, who has led the department since early 2014.
Westfall, the widow of former County Executive George R. “Buzz” Westfall, was appointed to the board in early 2014 by her husband’s successor, Charlie Dooley.
Corvington had served since 2012.
It was not known if Page planned to replace police board members Lawrence Wooten, Mark Gaertner or Art Johnson. Wooten and Gaertner did not respond to requests for comment on Monday. Johnson said he would not answer a reporter’s questions because he was in a meeting, but he still has not responded.
Page said in a letter to all county employees Monday that in addition to new police board members, there would be unspecified changes that would come from “taking a fresh look at how the police department makes decisions” and that Belmar would “lead” the department through those changes in the coming weeks.
Belmar sent a letter to the county police department employees Monday.
It read, in part: “Our challenges in recent weeks have been arduous. ... I understand there are those who may not feel that this department has either recognized, or fully implemented, an environment that is fair and inclusive for everyone. This must change and all of us must share in this responsibility as we move forward to form a solution to this important issue.”
In his letter, Belmar also pledged to create a diversity committee — an issue that came up during the trial in which Wildhaber’s attorneys presented a checklist of recommendations that the U.S. Department of Justice made in 2015 following the Ferguson protests on ways that the department could improve its community relations. Next to the line recommending the department create a diversity committee were the words, “Chief says no.”
Belmar testified that he did not agree to create the committee because it wasn’t “one of the tenets we agreed upon” with the Justice Department.
“In the coming weeks, we will be looking at ways to create a more open dialogue with employees in the department regarding these issues. … In order for this department to remain among the best, everyone must have a seat at the table and a voice that is heard. I will lead in these efforts, and remain confident that you will join me in ensuring that inclusion exists, both internally and externally, in all that we do,” Belmar wrote.
More than 200 people packed the County Council chambers Tuesday night, many people speaking in protest of incidents they consider police misconduct. Many shouted, “Fire Belmar!”
Civil rights activist Zaki Baruti was not one of those calling for Belmar to be fired. He wanted Belmar to fire an officer who was recently disciplined for mistreating a 63-year-old woman during a traffic stop.
Page did not shed much light on specific plans during Tuesday’s County Council meeting.
“We will be making some serious changes in the police department,” he said. “A fresh perspective at the top is vital to the future of our police department and St. Louis County. I’ve been working for weeks to identify the right people to help lead the police board, and I hope they will be on your agenda next week. I’ve been talking to Chief Belmar about his future and how these changes fit into his plans.”
Jeremy Kohler of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.
Read the coverage of the Wildhaber suit, trial and decisions after the verdict
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