St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar made a nearly $20 million mistake by turning a blind eye to his department’s blatant discrimination against a gay officer. Whether Friday’s jury award to Sgt. Keith Wildhaber is ultimately paid by taxpayers or an insurance fund, the cost in both monetary terms and damage to the department’s reputation is too great to merit Belmar’s continuation in the top job.
It’s time for Belmar to go and for new leaders to institute a top-to-bottom shakeup of county law enforcement. If the county Board of Police Commissioners doesn’t see Friday’s verdict as a clarion call for change, then County Executive Sam Page should undertake a full-scale sweep of the board as well. All five board members are serving on expired terms anyway. Lax oversight is exactly why the department’s abuses have gone uncorrected for so long.
Belmar’s flawed leadership is a serious part of the problem, but it goes much deeper than that. One of his captains, Guy Means, lied under oath during the discrimination trial. We know this because Donna Woodland, the widow of a former county officer, testified that Means had referred to Wildhaber as “fruity” when she and Means attended an event in 2015. She quoted Means as saying Wildhaber would never be promoted because he was “way too out there with his gayness” and needed to “tone it down” if he wanted to be promoted.
When Means took the stand Thursday, he testified that he didn’t know Woodland and wouldn’t be able to pick her out if she were sitting in the jury box. Woodland subsequently produced three posed photos of the two smiling and embracing. She had the photo framed and sent it to him. Witnesses say the photo hung in his office.
The photo doesn’t lie. Means’ credibility is shot. If he would lie in this instance, under oath as someone sworn to uphold the law, what other circumstances might prompt him to do it again? Say, the police shooting of an unarmed civilian? Officers driving while drunk or assaulting a civilian in a bar? Just as Kim Gardner, the prosecutor in St. Louis city, has seen fit to exclude the testimony of dozens of officers for their tainted credibility, county prosecutor Wesley Bell must now conduct the same review of county police — starting with Means and his associates.
Belmar testified that Wildhaber’s lawsuit factored into decisions not to promote him, which a county attorney explained as the chief fighting back against allegations of discrimination that he believed weren’t true. In other words, he punished Wildhaber for supposedly not telling the truth. And yet Belmar tolerates the continued employment of a captain who lied under oath.
If ever there was a mandate for a top-to-bottom shakeup, this is it.