In the first St. Louis County Council meeting since a jury awarded a police sergeant nearly $20 million in a discrimination lawsuit, County Executive Sam Page on Tuesday promised “serious changes” in the police department.
That came just hours after the county Board of Police Commissioners announced it is hiring an outside consultant to review the department.
A jury awarded Sgt. Keith Wildhaber almost $20 million after he successfully argued in court that he was passed over for promotions multiple times because he is gay. After he filed a formal complaint about the discrimination, Wildhaber said he was transferred to a less desirable post within the police department as retaliation.
The Wildhaber case prompted Page to announce he’s planning to replace members of the five-person police board. After Friday, all members will be serving on expired terms — giving Page the chance to reshape the panel that oversees the police department and Chief Jon Belmar.
“A fresh perspective at the top is vital to the success of our police department in St. Louis County. I’ve been working for weeks to identify potential members of the board of commissioners of the police department,” Page said. “And I’ve been talking with Chief Belmar about his future and how these changes might fit into his plans. Serious change is needed to promote equity and inclusion in county government and throughout St. Louis County.”
When asked if Belmar had discussed retiring or stepping down with Page, a spokesman said in an email that the chief “will continue to lead the women and men of the St. Louis County Police Department.”
As for specifics about his talks with Belmar, Page said he wished to keep those conversations private. “I think what he’s doing to implement some of the changes that we’ve requested is important,” Page said. “And I want to empower him to drive some of that needed change and messaging in the police department.”
Page said he’s met with the Anti-Defamation League to develop implicit bias training. He also met with members of the LGBTQ community earlier this week.
“We must do a better job of removing barriers to success that disproportionately affect marginalized people,” Page said. “It’s sad but true in 2019 we’re still talking about these issues — whether or not to treat people fairly regardless of gender, race or gender identity is really not something we should even ponder. But the answer is definitely yes.”
After Page spoke, some of the roughly 40 public speakers expressed frustration with the police department. Some were on hand to support Millicent Williams, a 63-year-old African American who said she was mistreated by a county police officer during a traffic stop.
“Now you’ve got $20 million for don’t wanting gay people in your community,” Natasha Troupe said. “What do you want? You don’t want black folks? You don’t want gay folks? You don’t want nobody. Everybody got an agenda up here, but not an agenda for the community.”
Among the people calling on Belmar to be fired was Anthony Shahid, an activist who participated extensively in the protest movement that followed Michael Brown Jr.’s death in Ferguson in 2014.
“Somebody’s got to make you all understand that five years is right back again — because you’re bringing it right back,” Shahid said.
Police board approves external review
Page is expected to make his appointments to the police board in the coming days. But the current members voted unanimously to authorize a review of the department by an outside entity.
That examination will include a look at department policies, procedures, decision-making and the promotion process. It will be conducted by someone selected by the police board and the county counselor’s office, according to a statement released by the board after a closed-door meeting.
The vote for the review took place during a two-hour private meeting. Board Chairman Lawrence Wooten said the meeting was closed to discuss legal advice and personnel matters as well as open and closed public records. The board said it could hold a private meeting based on state and county provisions.
The four board members declined to take questions from the media after the meeting ended. Board Chairman Roland Corvington resigned Monday.
The current board doesn’t appear to be interested in ousting Belmar. In a written statement, Wood said the board looks forward to working “with Chief Belmar during this process and throughout the implementation of changes that may be identified during this process.”
Council fills out freeholders
In other business, the county council approved Dee Joyner’s nomination to the Board of Freeholders — a body that could offer up a government reorganization plan for St. Louis and St. Louis County. Council members approved Page’s other eight nominees last week.
Efforts to approve St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson’s freeholder nominees have stalled. Both the county and the city missed a deadline in the constitution to approve all of the nominees, but it’s unclear if there is any sort of penalty for not acting quickly enough.
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