4 Milwaukee officers charged in strip searchesAccording to a criminal complaint, 10 men identified only by their initials told prosecutors the officers searched them between February 2010 and February 2012. Their stories are strikingly similar. They allege that Officer Michael Vagnini stopped them, placed his hand down their pants, performed a cavity search and shifted their genitals, saying he was looking for drugs.
By: By Carrie Antlfinger and Todd Richmond, Associated Press, Superior Telegram
MILWAUKEE — Prosecutors accused four Milwaukee police officers Tuesday of illegally strip searching nearly a dozen people over a two-year span.
According to a criminal complaint, 10 men identified only by their initials told prosecutors the officers searched them between February 2010 and February 2012. Their stories are strikingly similar. They allege that Officer Michael Vagnini stopped them, placed his hand down their pants, performed a cavity search and shifted their genitals, saying he was looking for drugs.
Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm charged Vagnini with 25 counts, including conducting an illegal strip search, misconduct in office, sexual assault and conducting an illegal body cavity search.
Chisholm also charged Jeffrey Dollhopf with conducting an illegal strip search, conducting an illegal body cavity search and two counts of misconduct in public office; Brian Kozelek with conducting an illegal strip search and misconduct in public office; and Jacob Knight with conducting an illegal body cavity search and misconduct in public office.
Chief Edward Flynn promised a new internal investigation with an eye toward disciplining them on top of the criminal charges. The officers were on paid leave, he said.
"Quite frankly I'm disgusted by the willful action of some of the officers of our police department," Flynn said at a news conference. "And I'm appalled by the willful inaction of some other officers in our police department in failing to stop egregious conduct. There's no justification for this."
The charges are the latest in a series of missteps for the department. The in-custody death of a suspect in July 2011 was changed from a natural death to homicide after a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel investigation. Another probe by the newspaper this summer found the department misreported more than 500 serious assault cases as lesser crimes that weren't counted in the city's violent crime rate.
Some have asked Flynn to resign. Asked Tuesday if he would step down, Flynn said the department has responded appropriately to the strip search investigation, noting the agency initiated the investigation into the officers before turning it over to prosecutors.
"The test of the agency isn't whether or not an act of misconduct occurs," he said. "It's how the agency responds to it. And this agency responded at every level of the organization: effectively, rapidly and directly."
All four officers made their first appearances in court Tuesday afternoon. Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Jeffrey A. Wagner ordered each of them to have no contact with the victims and not to discuss the case among themselves without their attorneys, then released them.
Knight's attorney, Jonathan C. Smith, declined comment on the case when reached by phone. Kozelek's attorney, Pat Brennan, said his client maintains his innocence.
"There's nothing in his personnel file that suggests anything but exemplary performance," Brennan said. The other officers' attorneys didn't immediately return telephone messages left at their offices late Tuesday afternoon.
The Milwaukee Police Association issued a statement saying the allegations stem from departmental pressure on officers to bolster statistics.
"These charges brought forth today, although disturbing in nature, are derived from officers attempting to serve an unguided order of command — they did not occur for personal gain. Where was the leadership?" the statement said.
According to the complaint, one of the victims testified under oath that officers stopped him in July 2011. The man alleged that Vagnini pinched his anus, causing him to yell out "Man, what are you doing? Don't touch me like that! You can't be doing that!" Vagnini replied with words to the effect of "Be a man and give it up."
Vagnini is accused of taking the man to a room in a district police station, throwing a box in the room and told him if he defecated once in the box he would let him go. The man tried to comply, investigators said in the complaint, but he couldn't and was released with a ticket for driving with a suspended license. Officers Dollhopf and Kozelek were in the room but did nothing to stop the proceedings and didn't report Vagnini to a supervisor, the complaint said.
A similar scenario allegedly took place that September, when Vagnini took a man he stopped to a room in the same police station after saying "I want to see what he's got in his butt." He used his finger to perform a cavity search, prompting the man to call out "This ain't right! Call my attorney!"
Vagnini then allegedly told the man to get the drugs out on his own, gave him a garbage can and had the man push the drugs out and place them into the can. The complaint did not specify what type of drugs the man was hiding but said Dollhopf and Officer Jacob Knight were in the room and didn't try to stop Vagnini or report him.
Another victim testified that this past February, Vagnini saw him coming out of his aunt's house, cuffed him, and then searched his anus. When the man tried to pull away, Vagnini put him in a chokehold. Two officers held his arms and one pressed a gun to his head, the victim said.
Flynn asked people to continue trusting his department.
"Effective policing depends upon public trust and public trust depends on ethnical policing," he said. "We pledge to continue to strengthen and continue to work to earn your trust. Lives depend on it."
Todd Richmond reported from Madison, Wis. and Carrie Antlfinger reported from Milwaukee. Jeff Baenen contributed to this report from Minneapolis.