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A police officer who said he was told to ‘tone down your gayness’ reaches $10 million settlement and gets promoted

Grames, Ronald

A St. Louis police officer allegedly told to “tone down your gayness” by a leader of his department reached a settlement with St. Louis County for half of what a jury awarded him, his attorneys told CNN.

Keith Wildhaber filed a lawsuit in 2017 alleging that his department discriminated against him over his sexual orientation while he was applying to be promoted to lieutenant. A jury awarded him nearly $20 million last October, but this week he settled with the county for $10.25 million, according to his attorneys.

His lawyers say they are pleased with the result.

“Keith is of the highest character, and this litigation journey began when Keith became tired of enduring unlawful treatment,” Russ Riggan and Sam Moore, attorneys for Wildhaber, said in a statement. “In doing so, he endured further and even more intense discrimination and retaliation.”

The county made significant changes, the statement said, including the promotion of Wildhaber to a lieutenant position to lead the newly formed Diversity and Inclusion Unit.

CNN has reached out to St. Louis County for comment.

The case stemmed from an incident in 2014, when Wildhaber was performing a routine security check at a local restaurant as a then police sergeant. The owner of the restaurant, who was also on the St. Louis County Board of Police Commissioners at the time, offered up some surprising career advice for Wildhaber as he applied to be promoted to lieutenant, according to the 2017 lawsuit.

“The command staff has a problem with your sexuality,” John Saracino told Wildhaber, according to the lawsuit. “If you ever want to see a white shirt (i.e., get a promotion), you should tone down your gayness.”

Saracino has denied the conversation took place.

Despite stellar performance reviews, Wildhaber did not get the promotion and was passed up for numerous others, the lawsuit alleged.

He filed a complaint to the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Missouri Commission on Human Rights, and a month later he was reassigned from his afternoon shift to a midnight shift in a precinct about 27 miles from where he lived, according to the lawsuit.

Wildhaber filed another discrimination charge, this time alleging unlawful retaliation. The lawsuit stated the department discriminated against him because it believed he “does not fit the stereotypical norms of what a ‘male’ should be.”

The St. Louis County Police Department referred requests for comment to the St. Louis County Counselor’s Office.

The St. Louis County Police Association, the union that represents St. Louis County police officers, said in a statement on Facebook following the jury’s award that contract negotiations with the department had been delayed over its “unwillingness to agree to protect our organization’s ability to fight against and remedy internal discrimination and retaliation.”

Correction: A previous version of this story said the St. Louis County Police Department did not respond to requests for comment. The department referred requests to the St. Louis County Counselor’s Office.

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