Police officer wins $19 million in lawsuit after being told to ‘tone down’ his ‘gayness’

A Missouri police officer who said he was told he should "tone down" his "gayness" if he wanted to receive a promotion has now been awarded $19 million as part of a discrimination lawsuit. 

St. Louis County Police Sgt. Keith Wildhaber filed the suit in 2017, following a conflict that stemmed from a conversation he had with a member of the Board of Police Commissioners three years earlier.

Wildhaber said he mentioned to the board member, John Saracino, that he was planning to apply for a lieutenant position — a promotion from his current role. Saracino allegedly responded by saying, "The command staff has a problem with your sexuality."

"If you ever want to see a white shirt [get the promotion], you should tone down your gayness," Saracino added, according to Wildhaber's lawsuit. 

Saracino has denied that the conversation occurred, but Wildhaber was ultimately passed over for the promotion. This was despite stellar performance reviews and the support of multiple superiors, his lawsuit alleges. 

Wildhaber, a 20-year department veteran at the time, filed a formal complaint with both the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Missouri Commission on Human Rights. A month later, he was reassigned from his afternoon shift to a midnight shift and was moved to a precinct much further from his home. 

The officer then filed another discrimination complaint, this time saying he'd suffered an unlawful retaliation for his original complaint. Wildhaber's lawsuit also claims he was passed up for numerous other promotions because he  "does not fit the stereotypical norms of what a 'male' should be."

Multiple St. Louis County police officers — including Chief John Belmar — took the stand during Wildhaber's trial, which concluded last week. On Friday, the officer was awarded $19 million, and many county officials began calling for leadership changes within the police department. 

"I'm pretty appalled what came to light last week about our St. Louis County Police Department," local council member Lisa Clancy told KMOV-TV.

St. Louis County Executive Sam Page released a formal statement on Sunday, calling for a "leadership change."

"The current police board and current police chief have served the county faithfully for years," Page's statement said. "The time for leadership changes has come and change must start at the top."

Meanwhile, Sam Moore, Wildhaber's attorney, told CNN his client should be proud of the victory. 

"We are ecstatic for our client, and it has been an honor and a privilege to have been part of this historic verdict," Moore said. "This has been a long and difficult road for Keith. His bravery and courage in standing up for what is right should be an inspiration for employees everywhere."

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