Jurors on Friday awarded Keith Wildhaber, an out 22-year veteran of the St. Louis County police, $19 million in damages in a discrimination lawsuit. Wildhaber sued the department in 2017 for discrimination, saying he was told to “tone down his gayness” if he ever wanted a promotion. The trial began on Tuesday.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports: “The jury deliberated about three hours before awarding Wildhaber $1.9 million in actual damages and $10 million in punitive damages on the discrimination allegation. It added $999,000 in actual damages and $7 million in punitive damages for the retaliation allegations.”
Said the jury foreman to reporters: “We wanted to send a message. If you discriminate you are going to pay a big price. … You can’t defend the indefensible.”
Earlier this week, Wildhaber told the court he was “sickened” after being told by former St. Louis County Police Board of Commissioners member John Saracino that he needed to “tone down his gayness” if he wanted to be promoted to lieutenant, the St. Louis Post Dispatch reported.
Wildhaber also said he was transferred to a precinct that tripled his commute and taken off of afternoon shifts and put on midnight shifts.
Wildhaber’s lawyers “depicted [Chief Jon] 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.”
Said Wildhaber: “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. This chief is very heavy on promoting the SWAT, masculine type of guys, and I wasn’t doing that.”
A group of jurors told reporters on Friday that photographs presented as evidence were a major part of their decision, and proved “how far the county was willing to go to beat Wildhaber.”
The photographs were presented to the jury by Donna Woodland, the widow of a former county police officer and girlfriend of a current officer.
Woodland had told the jury that Capt. Guy Means had called Wildhaber “fruity” at a police welfare event in 2015 and said Wildhaber was “way too out there with his gayness and he needed to tone it down if he wanted a white shirt. (promotion to command staff).”
The St. Louis Dispatch adds: “Means testified Thursday that he did not recall attending the event Woodland referred to and did not know Woodland. He said he would not be able to pick her out of the jury box if she was sitting there. On Friday, Woodland produced a photo booth array with three pictures of her and Means together at the event, including one frame that shows Means giving Woodland a bear hug.”
Read the Dispatch’s full report here.