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St. Louis County officer who said he was told to 'tone down his gayness' awarded $19M

Sgt. Keith Wildhaber sued the department and claimed that he was told to "tone down his gayness" if he wanted to be promoted.
Image: Keith Wildhaber
St. Louis County police Sgt. Keith Wildhaber returns from lunch break to the St. Louis County courthouse on the third day of his discrimination case against the county on Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019, in Clayton, Mo. Wildhaber, an Army veteran and a St. Louis County cop, alleges in a lawsuit filed in 2017 that he was passed over for promotion because he is gay and then retaliated against when he sought legal redress.Cristina M. Fletes / St. Louis Post-Dispatch via AP

A St. Louis County police sergeant who claimed he was told to "tone down his gayness" if he wanted to be promoted has reportedly been awarded nearly $19 million.

Sgt. Keith Wildhaber filed a discrimination suit against the police department in 2017, claiming that he was passed over for promotions because he is gay.

A jury on Friday awarded $1.9 million in actual damages and $10 million in punitive damages for discrimination, and $990,000 in actual damages and $7 million in punitive damages for retaliation after a weeklong trial, NBC affiliate KSDK of St. Louis reported.

Wildhaber joined the department in 1994. He previously served four years in the armed forces.

"We wanted to send a message," the jury foreman, who was not identified, told reporters, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch newspaper. "If you discriminate, you are going to pay a big price. ... You can't defend the indefensible."

County Counselor Beth Orwick told the newspaper Friday that the county was exploring its legal options.

"We are ecstatic for our client," lawyers for Wildhaber said after the jury's decision, which they called a "historic verdict," according to KSDK.

"His bravery and courage in standing up for what is right should be an inspiration for employees everywhere. 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," his attorneys said in the statement.

Leadership changes would be coming to the county police department as a result of the verdict, St. Louis County Executive Sam Page said Sunday, according to the station. He said in a statement on Twitter that those changes will include the appointment of new members to the police board, which oversees the police chief.

Wildhaber's suit said that in 2014, then-St. Louis County Board of Police Commissioners member John Saracino allegedly told Sgt. 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."

Wildhaber reportedly filed a discrimination charge with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Missouri Commission on Human Rights in 2016, and according to the suit, a month later he was moved from afternoons in a precinct to overnight shifts in Jennings, which is in the northeast section of the county.