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Jury awards $19M to officer who says he was told to tone down ‘gayness’

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Posted at 12:23 PM, Oct 28, 2019
and last updated 2019-10-28 14:24:35-04

ST. LOUIS, Mo. – A jury awarded about $19 million to an officer who filed and won a discrimination lawsuit against the St. Louis County Police Department.

In the suit, Sgt. Keith Wildhaber alleged that he was denied promotions because he was gay.

The 25-year veteran of the department claimed he had received “extremely positive feedback” during his career as a cop, but had been passed over for a promotion no less than 23 times for not abiding to traditional gender norms, KSDK reports .

The suit references a 2014 incident involving John Saracino, who was then a member of the St. Louis County Board of Police Commissioners. Wildhaber says he was visiting a restaurant on a routine check when he ran into Saracino who allegedly said, "The command staff has a problem with your sexuality. If you ever want to see a white shirt [i.e. get a promotion], you should tone down your gayness."

That alleged incident contributed to Wildhaber’s decision to file a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Missiouri Commission on Human Rights. The lawsuit claims this spurred the department to transfer Wildhaber from working an afternoon shift at the Affton precinct near his home to an overnight shift in the Jennings precinct, nearly 30 miles from his residence, Newsweek reports .

Last week, a jury heard arguments from both sides of the case. Chief of Police Jon Belmar and other members of the department denied the allegations of discrimination. Belmar claimed that one of the main reasons Wildhaber wasn’t promoted was an allegation that Wildhaber had tipped off the target of an FBI investigation, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch .

Despite Belmar’s testimony, the jury sided with Wildhaber. After a three-hour deliberation, the Post-Dispatch says the jury awarded the officer $1.9 million is actual damages and $10 million in punitive damages. They added $999,000 in actual damages and $7 million in punitive damages for retaliation allegations.