In 2014, St. Louis County Police Sgt. Keith Wildhaber stopped by a local restaurant for a routine check, according to a lawsuit.
There, he spoke with John Saracino, who at the time was a member of St. Louis County Board of Police Commissioners. Saracino indicated to Wildhaber that he knew that the sergeant was applying for a promotion within the department, the lawsuit states.
“Mr. Saracino told Plaintiff, ‘The command staff has a problem with your sexuality,’ ” the court documents read. “‘If you ever want to see a white shirt (i.e., get a promotion), you should tone down your gayness.’”
Wildhaber has filed suit against the county, alleging that he had been subjected to employment discrimination by being denied promotions.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that Saracino denied the conversation, which Wildhaber’s suit claimed occurred during a routine restaurant check.
“I never had a conversation like that,” Saracino told the newspaper. “I would never say anything like that. That’s not me.”
Saracino no longer serves on the civilian oversight board, according to the Post-Dispatch.
Sgt. Shawn McGuire, a department spokesman, told The Washington Post that St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar would not comment on the lawsuit, because it was active.
“It is our firm’s practice not to comment on pending litigation,” Wildhaber’s attorney, Russ Riggan, said in a statement emailed to The Post on Friday. “Until the case goes before a jury, we will allow the Petition to speak for itself. Our system of justice provides the right to a fair trial, and we do not wish to compromise our client’s rights by commenting to the media.”
According to the lawsuit, filed in January and recently posted online by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Wildhaber has worked for the department for more than two decades. He applied for a lieutenant position, the lawsuit said, and took a written test and underwent an assessment. His scores during that process ranked him as No. 3, out of 26 candidates.
Wildhaber claims he was sorted into a group with nine other top candidates, all of whom have since been promoted except for Wildhaber and one other officer, who the suit states has issues that might have stalled his professional advancement.
Wildhaber has a clean disciplinary record, strong performance reviews and a solid résumé, according to the lawsuit.
“Nonetheless, Plaintiff has not been promoted to the rank of Lieutenant,” the suit states.
— Q. Allan Brocka (@allanbrocka) February 16, 2017
After a second round of candidates was sorted into the top group, Wildhaber again ranked as No. 3 on the list. Since February 2015, however, he has “continued to be passed over for multiple promotions,” according to the suit.
“Defendant has refused to promote Plaintiff because he does not conform to the County’s gender-based norms, expectations, and/or preferences,” the lawsuit states. “Mr. Saracino’s comments to Plaintiff are direct evidence of sex/gender discrimination.”
It continues: “That direct evidence is further buttressed by the fact that Plaintiff has received stellar performance reviews, has solid backing from his immediate supervisors (who have expressed surprise and displeasure about Plaintiff being continually passed over for promotions), and is more qualified to hold the position of Lieutenant.”
The suit alleges that Wildhaber filed a discrimination charge with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and Missouri Commission on Human Rights in April. In May, according to the suit, he was reassigned from afternoon shifts in one precinct to midnight shifts in another precinct, which was located about 27 miles from his home.
The Post-Dispatch reported that Wildhaber was once asked to serve as a liaison to the LGBT community. That happened under another police chief who was replaced by Belmar, and Wildhaber didn’t step into that role.
Joe Patterson, president of the St. Louis County Police Association, told the newspaper that the group has asked Wildhaber to be a part of a still-forming committee that would “ensure all of our members are treated equally and fairly in the workplace, which is a bedrock principal of our organization.”
“We have been actively recruiting LGBT members and minority members to serve on steering committees in order to bring forth not only their concerns, but their ideas on how to improve the police association,” Patterson told the newspaper.
This post has been updated.
‘I can’t breathe’: Video shows deputies pepper-spraying man in a restraint chair