A St. Louis police officer who filed a discrimination suit after he was passed over for a promotion nearly two dozen times, allegedly because of his sexuality, was awarded nearly $20 million by a jury on Friday.
The decision wrapped a weeklong trial that pitted Sgt. Keith Wildhaber against St. Louis County after Wildhaber was allegedly once told he needed to “tone down [his] gayness” if he ever wanted to be promoted.
“We wanted to send a message,” the jury foreman told reporters, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “If you discriminate, you are going to pay a big price. … You can’t defend the indefensible.”
Wildhaber sued the county in 2017 for unlawful employment discrimination and retaliation, claiming he’d been passed over for multiple promotions on the basis of his gender/sex, thus violating the Missouri Human Rights Act, according to documents obtained by PEOPLE.
He was awarded $1.9 million in actual damages and $10 million in punitive damages on his discrimination allegation, plus $999,000 in actual damages and $7 million in punitive damages for his retaliation claim.
Wildhaber was hired to the St. Louis County Police Department as a security officer in 1994 after serving four years in the U.S. Army, according to the suit.
He graduated from the police academy three years later, and was promoted to sergeant in 2011, working until 2016 at the Affton Precinct, which was close to his home.
In 2014, he applied for a lieutenant position, something he was qualified for, as he consistently received positive feedback regarding his job performance, according to the suit.
During the application process, he was ranked third on a list of 26 candidates vying for the position, which meant he was put into a group that was considered “first in line” for the gig.
While completing a task as part of his duties as sergeant, however, he spoke with a member of the St. Louis County Board of Police Commissioners, who was aware he wanted the job, according to the suit.
The member allegedly told Wildhaber: “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.”
Though the man who allegedly said that denied during the trial that the conversation ever took place, Wildhaber recalled the emotions he felt after the talk as he testified, the Post-Dispatch reported.
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“I think I said, ‘I can’t believe we are having this conversation in 2014.’ It was devastating to hear,” he testified. “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.”
After he was repeatedly passed over for additional promotions “because he does not conform to the County’s gender-based norms, expectations and/or preferences,” Wildhaber filed a discrimination complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and Missouri Commission on Human Rights in 2016, the suit said.
Shortly after, he was reassigned to a different precinct nearly 30 miles away, and was also switched from his afternoon shift to the graveyard shift, Wildhaber said. He then filed another charge alleging unlawful retaliation.
During the trial, Chief Jon Belmar denied “punishing” Wildhaber for being gay, and claimed he never sabotaged his chance at a promotion, the Post-Dispatch reported.
A witness did testify, however, that Capt. Guy Means once called Wildhaber “fruity” and said he’d never be promoted because he was “way too out there with his gayness and he needed to tone it down if he wanted a white shirt.”
Means reportedly denied the conversation ever took place and claimed not to know the witness, who in turn provided photos of her and Means together.
In a statement to PEOPLE, Wildhaber’s attorneys Russ Riggan and Sam Moore said they were “ecstatic” for their client’s win, and commended Wildhaber for his strength throughout the lengthy process.
“His bravery and courage in standing up for what is right should be an inspiration for employees everywhere,” the statement read. “Justice was served in this trial, and no client could be more deserving than Keith. The jury acted as the conscience of the community and spoke loud and clear in its verdict. We sincerely hope that this matter is concluded so that our client can have the closure he deserves.”
Friday’s decision brought with it a push for County Executive Sam Page to replace members of the Board of Police Commissioners, something he acknowledged in a statement on Sunday.
“Our police department must be a place where every community member and every officer is respected and treated with dignity. Employment decisions must be made on merit and who is best for the job,” Page wrote. “The time for leadership changes has come and change must start at the top. We will begin with the appointment of new members to the police board, which oversees the police chief.”
The county’s police union also issued a statement to the Washington Post, expressing regret over the alleged behavior exhibited by the police department.
“While we are extremely embarrassed of the alleged actions of some of our Department’s senior commanders, we look forward to the healing process that can begin to take place now that this has been heard in open court,” the statement said.
A spokesperson for the St. Louis County Police Department did not immediately respond to PEOPLE’s requests for comment.