Page backtracks on Belmar; appoints new police board members

Pictured above: The St. Louis County Board of Police Commissioners meets Oct. 29 before going into closed session. Photo by Erin Achenbach.

By Gloria Lloyd
News Editor
glorialloyd@callnewspapers.com

In the days after a $20 million verdict against the St. Louis County Police Department for discrimination, County Executive Sam Page appeared to call for the end of Chief Jon Belmar’s tenure and then backtracked to say the chief will lead efforts to change the department.

Over the weekend after the Oct. 25 jury verdict, Page first signaled that he was looking to make changes to police leadership starting “at the top,” implying Belmar, by appointing new police board members who would have the power to fire him. But after the County Council meeting Oct. 29, Page said of Belmar, who has been chief since 2014, “He’s an important part of the transition, he’s an important person to deliver the message of change that’s coming from the police board. And we’ll work with him to deliver the message.”

The next morning, Page said at a “Breakfast with the Chief” fundraiser that Belmar is “not a quitter.”

The only statement released by Belmar himself is that he would “continue to lead the men and women of the St. Louis County Police Department.”

After a two-hour emergency closed session, the civilian-led St. Louis County police board agreed to an outside review of the department and its practices Oct. 29 after a jury awarded a $20 million verdict to an Oakville officer who said he was repeatedly denied promotions because he is gay.

Despite days of testimony from Belmar and his top commanders that they did not discriminate against Sgt. Keith Wildhaber, the jury sided Oct. 25 with Wildhaber’s argument that he was passed over for promotion 23 times and, after he filed a federal employment complaint, transferred to work in the Jennings Precinct instead of staying in the Affton Southwest Precinct closer to his home in South County.

Almost immediately, Page promised new members of the Board of Police Commissioners, whose members were all serving on expired terms. The County Council fast-tracked a hearing Monday on Page’s new nominees, former Missouri Supreme Court Chief Judge Ray Price and attorney Michelle Schwerin.

County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell said that his office will launch a perjury probe into whether any officers lied on the stand. Testimony from Capt. Guy Means, the commander of the North County Precinct, was contradicted by photo exhibits.

“Upholding the integrity of the judicial process and law enforcement is of the upmost importance,” Bell said in a statement. “While we are aware of this issue and what allegedly occurred at trial, we have not reviewed the matter (e.g. transcripts, exhibits and the full breadth of the trial materials). As it is irresponsible to speculate and draw conclusions prematurely, we will review the matter (as we would any potential allegations) and follow the facts wherever they may lead.”

Police board Chairman Roland Corvington, a former FBI agent, resigned Oct. 28, leaving four members on the board: acting board Chairman Bishop Lawrence Wooten, Secretary Laurie Westfall — the widow of the late County Executive Buzz Westfall, also the longtime county prosecutor — and Art Johnson and Michael Gaertner. Wooten and Westfall were appointed by former County Executive Charlie Dooley, and Johnson and Gaertner were appointed by former County Executive Steve Stenger.

Price was set to replace Corvington, and Schwerin was set to replace Westfall, who had served since 2013.

When the remaining four board members and Belmar emerged from closed session last week, they declined to comment but issued a press release outlining their unanimous vote to initiate an outside independent review of the department’s policies and procedures, the decision-making and promotional processes and inclusion.

The board said it hopes the review can be finished in 90 days and said that the report will be made public.

As far as any perjury investigation from Bell into commanders who might have lied on the witness stand, the board also pledged the cooperation of the department: “The Board of Police Commissioners committed to cooperate with any investigative agency that inquires into the matters concerning recent events and will direct the St. Louis County Police Department to cooperate fully when requested.”

The police board has the power to hire and fire the police chief, but Wooten said in the board’s release, “The Board of Police Commissioners looks forward to working with Chief Belmar during this process and throughout the implementation of changes that may be identified during this process.”

The St. Louis County Police Association, the officers’ police union which has supported Belmar in the past but is currently in contract negotiations, issued a statement on the verdict in favor of “our brother,” Wildhaber:

“The St Louis County Police Association has a long history of fighting for equality for all of our members. While we are extremely embarrassed of the alleged actions of some of our Department’s senior commanders, we look forward to the healing process that can begin to take place now that this has been heard in open court.”

As far as contract negotiations, the union said, “Central to the delay in reaching an agreement has been the Department’s overt unwillingness to agree to protect our organization’s ability to fight against and remedy internal discrimination and retaliation.  We hope more people now understand why we feel so passionate about the need to have such a mechanism in place.”

After the Breakfast with the Chief, the union added, “We are anxious to move forward toward a more inclusive Police Department. We sincerely hope the department changes course and restores remedies for discrimination and retaliation which our organization has been fighting tirelessly for in current contract negotiations.”