In the spring of 2014, St. Louis County police Sgt. Keith Wildhaber says he was told he would need to “tone down his gayness” if he hoped to be promoted to lieutenant.
The comment, according to Wildhaber, came from a former member of the St. Louis County Police Board of Commissioners, John Saracino, a short time after Chief Jon Belmar took over the department.
“I was sickened by it,” said Wildhaber on the first day of his employment discrimination lawsuit against the department, reports the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
“I think I said, ‘I can’t believe we are having this conversation in 2014.’ It was devastating to hear,” Wildhaber told the jury. “We had never spoken of my sexuality before, and I thought he was just trying to be helpful to me and looking out for my best interest in the promotional process.”
Saracino later denied making the comment.
Wildhaber filed the lawsuit in 2017 after being passed over for promotion 23 times.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported at the time Wildhaber ranked third among 26 people who took a promotions test in February 2014. In February 2015, he again placed third in a second round of tests.
On the opening day of the lawsuit, lawyers representing Wildhaber characterized Chief Belmar as “having a penchant for promoting masculine men that dominates all promotional decisions and said that he will retaliate against anyone who questions them, as Wildhaber did by filing his lawsuit.”
“The police department under Chief Belmar is big on high-testosterone, type A masculine personalities, and my method of policing doesn’t conform with that,” testified Wildhaber, who contends he would have been promoted if he weren’t openly gay. “This chief is very heavy on promoting the SWAT, masculine type of guys, and I wasn’t doing that.”
Wildhaber’s attorneys told the jury that, after filing his lawsuit, Wildhaber was transferred to the Jennings precinct which nearly tripled his daily commute to work. And he was moved from afternoon shifts and put on midnights.
Wildhaber told the court, “It’s what’s known as a ‘geography lesson’ in the department.”
Lawyers for the department told the jury the police chief had reasons not to promote the 22-year-veteran, who is still with the department.
The department’s attorney’s pointed to a three-day suspension in 2011 for failing to file 23 out of 6,000 police reports during his tenure as a fraud detective.
The lawyer’s also said Wildhaber had been the subject of an FBI investigation and hadn’t told Belmar. They accused him of tipping off a suspect the FBI was investigating.
But Wildhaber denied the allegations saying, “I didn’t do that,” adding that he informed his supervisor after being questioned by the FBI.
Attorneys for Wildhaber say there have been officers with larger disciplinary issues in their file than Wildhaber who have been promoted to lieutenant.
The trial will continue on Wednesday.
Missouri has no laws prohibiting discrimination against LGBTQ people in the workplace.
A bill to add sexual orientation to the state’s non-discrimination laws was passed by the state Senate on May 17, 2013, but the state House of Representatives adjourned that session without taking up the bill for consideration.