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St. Louis County Police promote sergeant at center of $20 million discrimination verdict

St. Louis County Police promote sergeant at center of $20 million discrimination verdict

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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 gay St. Louis County police sergeant who won a discrimination lawsuit against the county after being passed up for promotion 23 times was finally promoted on Thursday.

Now a lieutenant, Keith Wildhaber will command a new Diversity and Inclusion Unit in the police department effective Jan. 1, Chief Jon Belmar said in a statement.

“The Police Department must demonstrate to our officers and to our community that we prioritize diversity and inclusion,” Belmar said.

The promotion and new unit were announced just days before attorneys for Wildhaber and the county are scheduled to begin mediating a nearly $20 million verdict that a jury awarded in October.

Wildhaber’s lawyer, Russ Riggan, said the promotion and creation of a new unit were not part of any settlement offer.

Doug Moore, a spokesman for County Executive Sam Page, said the county agreed that the promotion was not part of any potential settlement.

“It was a proposal they made to him,” Riggan said. “Their lawyer made it clear it was not tied to the case.”

In a statement, Riggan said the promotion was “hopefully a crucial first step for the County in making necessary changes to its culture in order to better serve the citizens of St. Louis County.” He said he hoped mediation would “achieve a fair resolution that allows the parties to put an end to this difficult and long-running litigation battle.”

Wildhaber will report to Belmar, review existing diversity and inclusion efforts for effectiveness, work with community members to improve services and propose new ways to “provide confidence to the community we serve and those within our department who provide such service and protection,” the police department said. Wildhaber’s salary was not immediately available.

“This unit will be responsible for overseeing and executing activities that foster an inclusive environment within the department and enhance the department’s services to the diverse constituents it serves,” the department said.

Page, the county executive, tweeted that change had begun with replacing four of the five members of the Board of Police Commissioners, which oversees the department.

“Creating a Diversity & Inclusion Unit is the next step in the serious & thoughtful change that’s needed,” he tweeted. “Appointment of a well-qualified leader whose perspective is informed by life experiences demonstrates the County’s commitment to progress.”

Wildhaber filed his discrimination lawsuit in 2017, alleging that Belmar and his administration repeatedly passed him over for promotion to lieutenant because he’s gay. He also claimed administrators retaliated against him for filing a complaint. The jury found in his favor on Oct. 24 after a five-day trial.

St. Louis County Circuit Judge David Vincent III ordered both sides into mediation, which is scheduled to begin next week.

The county hired the Lewis Rice law firm to handle post-trial hearings and other matters, which has so far cost $150,000.

Wildhaber recently retained Chip Robertson as part of his legal team. Robertson is a former Missouri Supreme Court judge who served as chief justice in the early 1990s.

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