Scandal Tarnishes Milwaukee Police Force
MILWAUKEE (CN) - Milwaukee police abusively strip searched at least eight black men, including a minor, the men say in five federal lawsuits.
"The Internal Affairs Division ignored the clear and obvious pattern of illegal and abusive cavity and strip searches demonstrated by these civilian complaints, repeatedly rejected the complaints as meritless and refused to recommend discipline for the accused officers," the father of K.F. claims in his lawsuit. K.F. was 15 and a freshman in high school when he was illegally stopped and strip searched, according to the complaint.
In July this year, five men sued Milwaukee, its Chief Edward Flynn and several police officers, in two lawsuits. Three men, one of them K.F., filed three similar lawsuits last week.
Police and prosecutors investigate and criminally charged four officers for the illegal strip searches last year. One officer was removed from the force.
Robin Shellow, an attorney representing all of the plaintiffs, said more lawsuits are expected from the 30 or more people who came forward last year during the investigation.
After the Internal Affairs investigation, former Officer Michael Vagnini was charged with two counts of illegal cavity searches, eight counts of illegal strip searches, four counts of second-degree sexual assault, one count of third-degree sexual assault, two counts of fourth-degree sexual assault, ten counts of misconduct in public office, and one count of false imprisonment.
Vagnini negotiated a plea in April this year in which the seven felony sexual assault charges were dismissed, and he pleaded no-contest to four felony charges of misconduct in public office and four misdemeanor charges of conducting illegal strip and body cavity searches of African American men.
Vagnini was sentenced in June to 26 months in prison and 34 months of extended supervision.
Three other officers were charged with multiple felonies and misdemeanors. Charges against two of them, which do not include sexual assault counts, are pending.
Internal Affairs began receiving complaints of the illegal cavity searches as early as 2008, according to the new lawsuits.
"The Internal Affairs Division ignored the clear and obvious pattern of illegal and abusive cavity and strip searches demonstrated by these civilian complaints, repeatedly rejected the complaints as meritless and refused to recommend discipline for the accused officers," K.F. and his father say in their lawsuit.
The complaints cite an April 21, 2013 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article in which Police Chief Flynn acknowledged that his department had been receiving complaints for a "couple of years" before it opened its investigation of the allegations.
The victims claim that Flynn and other policymakers took no action to train, supervise or discipline the officers who committed the illegal searches.
"Instead, supervisors rewarded several of the officers who engaged in these illegal searches with commendations for their aggressive police tactics, including commendations from Defendant Flynn," according to K.F.'s complaint.
The plaintiffs claim that Flynn and other authorities "concealed from the public and from judges, prosecutors and defense counsel that the Milwaukee Police Department had a de facto policy and practice which endorsed and encouraged illegal body cavity searches."
The plaintiffs claim that Vagnini and other officers conducted the cavity searches without consent or warrant, making forcible entry into their bodies in a non-hygienic setting, without the medical training to perform such a search safely.
State law and police procedures prohibit officers from conducting body cavity searches. Only medical personnel are allowed to perform them, and police must first obtain a search warrant.
The 15-year-old juvenile, identified as K.F., says he was riding in a friend's car that was stopped by police. According to the suit, he was ordered out of the car before Vagnini reached into the teen's pants, touching his genitalia and his anus while another officer watched. No drugs were found, but K.F. was taken to a police station and cited.
The other plaintiffs allege similar offenses. One victim, who was serving time after being illegally searched, had his felony conviction vacated this month.
The men seek punitive damages for civil rights violations, including false arrest, failure to intervene, conspiracy to deprive them of constitutional rights, illegal policy and practice, and supervisory liability.