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Police union says St. Louis County police lieutenant 'verbally admonished' for speaking out against racist dispatcher's remarks

Lt. Keith Wildhaber asked to be transferred out of the Diversity and Inclusion Unit following a meeting with the human resources director

ST. LOUIS COUNTY, Mo. — “This type of language is disgusting and has no place in our department or in society. Immediate and decisive action must be taken by department leadership. We cannot continue to deny there is systemic racism and discrimination in our department. It’s time to dismantle it.”

St. Louis County Police Lt. Keith Wildhaber sent those words to 5 On Your Side Saturday after a dispatcher related to Chief Mary Barton used a racial slur on an open police radio.

And it’s those words that the leaders of the St. Louis County Police Association said got Wildhaber in trouble with the administration, and led him to request a transfer out of the Diversity and Inclusion Unit.

It’s a unit former Chief Jon Belmar created after Wildhaber sued the department alleging he was passed over for a promotion because he is gay. He won a $20 million jury verdict in October 2019, which the county later settled for about $10.25 million.

His time at the helm of the unit, which formed after the verdict, has had its share of controversy.

And this is not the first time Wildhaber has wanted out.

Wildhaber declined to comment, but the police union issued statements on his behalf.

“Now, this very important unit is left without a commander during a critical time in which the department must work diligently to heal and regain the trust of the community,” wrote police union Executive Director Joe Patterson.

The department’s policy states: “Only the chief of police or designated representative may release information regarding department policies, administrative activities or internal police matters to the news media.”

In a statement, department spokesman Sgt. Benjamin Granda wrote: “Individual units are not exempt from the department’s policies and procedures, even in instances of shared outrage and disgust. The department’s leadership is evaluating the best way for the unit to move forward and fulfill its mission.”

But when it comes to the issue of one of Chief Barton’s relatives using a racial slur on police radios, the St. Louis County Police Association believes the issue is too important to remain silent. That dispatcher has been suspended without pay.

“On an issue as important as this, it is imperative that the commander of the Diversity and Inclusion Unit be able to address the public of the unit’s stance and remedies regarding racism and bigotry of all kinds,” Patterson wrote.

Not long after 5 On Your Side posted its story about the incident Saturday, Barton summoned Wildhaber to a meeting with Human Resources Director Carl Becker Monday morning. She left the room before the meeting with Becker began, according to the police union.

Becker “verbally admonished” Wildhaber “for speaking out against the use of a racial slur to the media,” according to the union.

“In order to avoid any further punishment by Human Resources Director Carl Becker for speaking out against the use of racial slur to the media, Lt. Wildhaber has requested a transfer out of the Diversity and Inclusion Unit,” Patterson wrote. “The St. Louis County Police Association supports Lt. Wildhaber for speaking out against the use of a racial slur by department personnel and will represent him during any discipline he may receive for speaking to the media in his official capacity as commander of the Diversity and Inclusion Unit.”

Wildhaber and Becker have locked horns before.

Becker was a county attorney at the time Wildhaber filed his discrimination lawsuit and oversaw the case for most of its first three years.

The judge in the case doubled Wildhaber’s attorneys' fees saying the county attorney’s multiple delays in getting public information to Wildhaber’s attorneys and continuances was “not lost on the court.”

Belmar made Becker the Director of Human Resources before the Wildhaber trial began in October 2019.

The judge on the Wildhaber case made a point of singling out Becker’s work on the case, acknowledging the county attorneys who tried the case in court were not the ones he was referring to in his remarks.

Following the trial, Belmar put Wildhaber in charge of the Diversity and Inclusion Unit.

Ethical Society of Police leaders criticized the appointment, saying Wildhaber was not qualified to lead the unit because he lacked formal training. The organization, or ESOP as it’s sometimes called, is a membership organization that represents primarily Black officers.

Wildhaber requested a transfer out of the unit during the summer following the membership organization’s criticisms.

He said then it was Barton who convinced him to stay.

He’s expected to report to the Division of Patrol Sunday.

The ESOP provided the following statement:

As much as we are outraged that Chief Barton and members of her leadership team would target Lt. Wildhaber for speaking out against racism, so should every tax-paying citizen of St. Louis County. It is obvious that the awarding of a multimillion-dollar settlement for previous discrimination was not a deterrent for the continued behavior. This should serve as further evidence of the Department's consistent tactic of denial, cover-up, silence and/or punish those who speak out. One would think that a Police Board with 4 of its 5 members being attorneys would know better. We are calling on the Board of Police Commissioners to take a leadership role, exercise the responsibility of their positions and end this madness of intolerance and intimidation within the St. Louis County Police Department.

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