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St. Louis County police discrimination case

St. Louis County police Sgt. Keith Wildhaber returns from lunch break to the St. Louis County courthouse on the third day of his discrimination case against the county on Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019, in Clayton. Wildhaber, an Army veteran and a St. Louis County cop alleges in a lawsuit filed in 2017, that he was passed over for promotion because he is gay and then retaliated against when he sought legal redress. Photo by Cristina M. Fletes, cfletes@post-dispatch.com.

The departure of two key members of the St. Louis County Board of Police Commissioners Monday is a tacit acknowledgment that the board had failed to do its job and keep tabs on the very department the board was appointed to oversee. Chairman Roland Corvington made no attempt in his resignation statement to sugarcoat the problems that prompted a jury last week to award nearly $20 million to a gay police sergeant who faced repeated acts of discrimination.

The award “was a wake-up call to the department and its leadership that they have to be mindful of what is said and how it’s said,” Corvington said in a rare moment of candor. The board too often has stood staunchly, yet undeservedly, behind Chief Jon Belmar.

In contrast, ousted member Laurie Westfall insisted that the board “really had nothing to do with the [discrimination] trial, and this board didn’t even know that all was going on.” Isn’t it the board’s job to know what’s going on and provide proper oversight when commanders fail to perform according to standards? Of course it is.

Westfall acknowledged as much when she stated that, had the board been aware, it could have defused the situation between the gay police sergeant and the upper echelon of commanders who had denied him promotions and reassigned him to less-desireable areas when he began complaining. “That’s our job,” Westfall said.

She and her fellow members failed to do their job, which is why County Executive Sam Page was correct to start this week’s sweep of the board, which has a history of rubber-stamping Belmar’s management decisions and shrugging off his transgressions.

Recall when Belmar joined then-County Executive Steve Stenger in writing letters to a federal judge in 2015 urging a lenient sentence for the nephew of a top Stenger aide. The nephew, Michael Saracino II, was a convicted drug dealer linked to a brutal kidnapping, assault and firebombing. This was an early warning sign of the corruption that earned Stenger his current prison term. Belmar had no business partnering with Stenger in the letter-writing campaign.

Belmar’s intervention did earn him a reprimand from the police board. But Corvington effectively negated it by stating, “Chief, if I may, you continue to have the full support of this board.”

Under Belmar’s command, county police used military equipment and overly harsh tactics in response to the 2014 Ferguson protests, prompting a Justice Department rebuke. Racial imbalances have persisted. Belmar has squandered opportunities to improve command and control over MetroLink security. He issued commendations to officers after they were caught goofing off in a substation office while they were supposed to be on duty.

Belmar’s job is exceedingly tough, but the board too often has excused his repeated errors in judgment. It’s time for Page to set a new course by installing new leadership.