CLAYTON, Mo. — Brittney Young said St. Louis County Lt. Jeffrey Hoots first noticed her when he saw her in her county-issued swimsuit working as a lifeguard.
At the time, he was the commander of the Park Rangers Division and recruited her to work as an administrative aide at the office, Young said.
He ordered her to pretend to be his girlfriend during training scenarios where he planned to teach rangers how to diffuse situations, she said.
“He would make up scenarios where he put his arm around me and I was like, ‘Why are you touching me?’” she recalled.
Young has filed one of two lawsuits against the county accusing Hoots of sexual harassment and county commanders of not doing enough to stop him.
The accusations in the lawsuits follow a similar pattern of whistleblowing, coverups and retaliation that netted a police sergeant a $20 million jury verdict in 2019. In that case, Sgt. Keith Wildhaber said he was passed over for a promotion because he is gay and was retaliated against by then-Chief Jon Belmar’s administration for complaining about it.
Young’s lawsuit is one of four that have been filed since the Wildhaber verdict involving five county police employees. One of them is a joint lawsuit filed by two Black police commanders alleging discrimination and retaliation for filing complaints about it.
Young's attorney told the I-Team she's representing more alleged victims of Hoots' harassment.
“What he did was really wrong,” Young said in a tearful interview with the I-Team. “And I’m not OK.”
A spokesman for the St. Louis County Police Department said it does not comment on pending litigation or personnel issues.
Hoots declined to comment.
He retired in April after 29 1/2 years on the force.
Young said the department should not have let him retire with his full pension.
“What the department is saying is, ‘What you tolerate, you condone,’” Young said.
‘Do you date older men?’
Young was 21 years old when she started working for Hoots in August 2020 and the training scenarios began on day one, according to her lawsuit.
“This is the stuff that SWAT or somebody would do, not the park rangers,” she said. “They were just crazy scenarios. I honestly didn’t know what to think of it. I was a 21-year-old girl. I thought I could trust everybody, but not after this."
In her lawsuit, she accuses him of sending her inappropriate pictures on her cellphone.
“There would be times where he would Snapchat me drinking wine when he was drunk, and he would text me when he was drunk as well,” she said.
She said he also sent her a picture of himself without a shirt on inside his bedroom.
“He did ask me, ‘Do you date older men?’” she said. “And I told him, ‘No, I date people my age, not 50.’”
That’s when his tone changed, according to the lawsuit.
He ordered her to work as a dispatcher – a position she said she did not have the training for and told him she did not want to do, according to the lawsuit.
“I never was physical with him, but I was punished as a result,” she said. “My biggest worry is that my reputation has been damaged at such a young age and I'm afraid that people think I would dip so low as to do anything physical with this old man.”
In her lawsuit, she said she was also not paid the same amount as the other dispatchers.
She said she kept the harassment a secret for months.
“I didn't really know who to go to about it because he was our commander,” she said. “I was kind of scared too, because I was afraid nobody would believe me.”
Another lawsuit pending
Unbeknownst to Young, other women in the Park Rangers Division were reporting sexual harassment allegations against Hoots, according to a lawsuit filed about a week after Young filed hers.
Lt. Michael Reifschneider has been with the St. Louis County Police Department for more than 35 years.
In his lawsuit, he accuses then-Chief Mary Barton of not doing anything to stop Hoots’ inappropriate treatment of young women working for him as park rangers.
He claims he was retaliated against for reporting it and other misconduct allegations involving other officers on unrelated issues.
In September 2020 – one month after Young started working in the Park Rangers Division – Reifschneider said he learned “Lt. Hoots was engaging in inappropriate sexual relationships with one or more subordinate County park rangers," according to the lawsuit.
He said he told Barton during a phone conversation.
“Barton’s response indicated she was aware of Lt. Hoots’ inappropriate sexual conduct,” according to the lawsuit.
Reifschneider told Barton he was going to report it to Internal Affairs, but Barton told him not to and assured Reifschneider, “she would look into it herself,” according to the lawsuit.
About a month later, Barton told Reifschneider, “she had someone look into the sexual harassment complaints and that nothing was going on,” according to the lawsuit.
Within a week, a park ranger called Reifschneider alleging, “the situation for park rangers had gotten worse.”
“Lt. Hoots gave the park rangers a ‘geography lesson,’ by reassigning them to undesirable posts in retaliation for the rangers’ complaints of sexual harassment,” according to the lawsuit.
Reifschneider claims he told Barton that Hoots was retaliating against the park rangers and that “their work environment had become more hostile,” according to the suit.
Later that winter, Reifschneider said Barton’s administration refused to promote him, and Barton downgraded an award she gave him for his actions during a hostage situation.
More alleged victims come forward
In March 2021, Hoots was transferred out of the Park Rangers Division after having served there since July 2017. He was sent to work in the North County Precinct, where he worked until he retired, according to a document obtained by the I-Team.
The department does not share information about where officers are assigned, saying it’s personnel information that can be withheld according to the Sunshine Law.
Young said she was interviewed by Internal Affairs about her experiences with Hoots, including text messages and pictures he sent her.
She said she was glad to know someone else had come forward to report his conduct and regrets not coming forward sooner.
Her attorney Lauren Sierra with the Jungle Law firm said Young is one of at least three women her firm is representing who have accused Hoots of sexual harassment. At least two others have filed complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission – the first step toward filing a lawsuit.
“We actually expect that number to rise,” Sierra said.
The EEOC process takes months as negotiators work to settle complaints and avoid lawsuits. Ultimately, if there is no resolution between the parties, lawsuits get filed.
Sierra said Young’s situation illustrates a systemic problem within the St. Louis County Police Department.
“It's hard to trust in these entities when we see that there are things happening that we wouldn't want to happen to our family members or children,” she said. “These allegations are really, really serious.”
Young said her only regret is not coming forward sooner.
“I hope that other women will see my story as a precaution, because when you're subjected to this kind of treatment, it's better to stand up sooner rather than later, and don't let yourself be a victim,” she said. “Most of all, I'm really hoping that the Saint Louis County Police Department will stop covering for people like him.”
Young has rejoined the Park Rangers Division, working as an administrative aide as she was originally hired to do.
She’s now working for a different commander, who she said treats her with respect.
And, she said, training scenarios are no longer part of the protocol.