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Missouri officer told to "tone down" his "gayness" settles suit for $10.25 million

A Missouri police lieutenant who says he was told to "tone down" his "gayness" when seeking a promotion has settled a lawsuit against St. Louis County for $10.25 million, CBS St. Louis affiliate KMOV-TV reports. Keith Wildhaber says he was turned down for a promotion 23 times, and was transferred to a precinct far from his home after he filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

"This lawsuit acknowledges what Lt. Wildhaber survived in the police department and lets us move forward as a county," County Executive Sam Page said on Monday, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports. "I think it's important to recognize that this sends a message to everyone in county government and to all of our employers in the St. Louis region that discrimination will not be tolerated."

After the trial, jurors told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that key to Wildhaber's case was testimony from a witness who said a police captain told her Wildhaber would never be promoted because he was "way too out there with his gayness." In court, the captain denied talking to, or even knowing, the witness. The witness then presented photos showing the two together, including one of the captain giving her a bear hug, according to the newspaper. 

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St. Louis County Police Lt. Keith Wildhaber CBS affiliate KMOV-TV

The jury awarded the then-police sergeant $19 million in October. Because Wildhaber could keep a larger share of the award by settling, he negotiated with the county, leaving him with a total of $10.25 — $7 million of which has to be paid within 60 days.

In a statement on Tuesday, Page said the settlement was a "fair compromise to both Lt. Wildhaber and the County," KMOV-TV reports. The county executive also acknowledged that the settlement "saved the County at least $11M," when compared to the original jury award.

Wildhaber was finally promoted to lieutenant in December. He was also placed in command of a new diversity and inclusion unit by St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar, whose leadership was called into question throughout the trial, KMOV-TV reports.

Belmar announced his retirement on the same day the settlement was reached. Page said Belmar's retirement was not a condition of the settlement, and that the chief was already thinking of stepping down this year.

"I believe the chief wanted to make sure we moved forward and got the department on the right track after this settlement," Page said.

Wildhaber initially offered to settle with the county for $850,000 plus a promotion to lieutenant. The County Board of Police Commissioners did not accept his offer and the case went to trial, ultimately costing the county over $9 million, the Post-Dispatch reports. 

The county's defense centered on the argument that Missouri's Human Rights Act does not include discrimination against gay people. After the trial, the jury foreman told reporters the jurors wanted a big verdict "to send a message."

In response to the massive settlement, Page said Wildhaber's experience "was a symptom of the discrimination that is pervasive in our culture," KMOV-TV reports.

"It is not something that can be blamed on any one person or department. It is, however, a significant message for the County, and all of us who care about fair treatment," he said. "Discrimination isn't always obvious. It is even more likely to be quiet and insidious."

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