St.Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar has embarked on a public relations campaign to declare he wants to “move forward” after egregious mistakes by him and his commanders cost the county a nearly $20 million discrimination judgment. Notably absent from comments Belmar has given to the Post-Dispatch’s Christine Byers and other reporters is any hint of contrition or expression of personal responsibility.
Instead, the chief portrays this as a teachable moment, where everyone involved can learn and grow, but nobody in authority has to pay a price or really even admit wrongdoing. County Executive Sam Page and the county Board of Police Commissioners must not let Belmar and his commanders escape full public accountability. They must pay a price commensurate with the millions of dollars the county must now shell out on their behalf. Belmar must be disabused of the notion that he can smoothly ride this out until retirement.
To hear Belmar’s version, the court judgment is really just a difference of viewpoints and an opportunity to “change and get better.” He says “you have to understand certain people had a viewpoint, and you have to respect that viewpoint.”
The jury’s and Sgt. Keith Wildhaber’s viewpoint is that he was denied promotion 23 times because he is gay, and that when he complained, he was bullied and punished with a transfer to a faraway precinct and an undesirable midnight work shift.
Wildhaber’s attorneys tried to negotiate an $850,000 settlement as recently as April, but the county refused because officials were convinced they could win at trial. How did officials get the misimpression this case was winnable? Almost certainly because the person in charge — Belmar — convinced them he and his commanders were right and Wildhaber was wrong. That would be the same person who today is so clearly reluctant to admit fault even after this disastrous jury award.
As a result, Belmar will now require line officers to undergo implicit-bias training even though they had nothing to do with discrimination against Wildhaber. In case Belmar is under the illusion that he has the support of his troops, he should think otherwise. “So now all the troops have to go to more training because of the mistakes of a few select commanders… typical,” the county police union posted on Twitter.
The union is seeking arbitration in current contract negotiations in light of testimony in the Wildhaber case. Belmar won’t discuss it. There is clear evidence that at least one commander lied under oath during court testimony. Belmar won’t discuss it.
What can the public learn from this teachable moment? We can learn that Belmar will not hold himself accountable. He won’t apologize. But he’s apparently happy to make line officers undergo training to fix the problems commanders created. If this is what Belmar thinks is leadership, he clearly has no business continuing in the top job.