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Four Milwaukee police officers were charged Tuesday with felonies related to illegal rectal searches of suspects on the street and in police district stations over the past two years.
In one case, an officer held a gun to a man's head as two others held his arms and a third put him in a choke hold while jamming a hand into his anus, purportedly searching for evidence, according to the criminal complaint. Another man bled from his rectum for several days after his encounter with police, the complaint says.
The complaint (PDF) lays out in graphic detail how the primary suspect, officer Michael Vagnini, conducted searches of suspects' anal and scrotal areas, often inserting his fingers into their rectums. Vagnini acknowledged performing one of the searches. At least one suspect said Vagnini planted drugs on him.
State law and police procedures prohibit officers from ever conducting cavity searches. Only medical personnel are allowed to perform them, and police must first obtain a search warrant.
The charges are the latest blow to Chief Edward Flynn and his department, already under fire for the in-custody death of Derek Williams, detaining the mother of a murdered boy and reporting inaccurate crime statistics to the FBI and the public.
At a news conference Tuesday, Flynn differentiated among the allegations, calling the earlier incidents "error" and the illegal searches "willful misconduct."
"Crime cannot be fought with criminality," he said. "A hard-earned reputation has been tarnished."
Vagnini faces 25 counts and was the only officer charged with sexual assault. If convicted, he faces a maximum penalty of 25 years in prison.
Officer Jeffrey Dollhopf faces two counts of misconduct in public office and one count each of conducting an illegal cavity search and an illegal strip search, both as party to a crime. Officers Jacob Knight and Brian Kozelek each face one count of misconduct in public office. Knight faces one count of being a party to the crime of an illegal cavity search. Kozelek is charged with one count of being a party to the crime of an illegal strip-search.
The misconduct charges are felonies with a maximum possible penalty of 3½ years in prison. The cavity search and strip-search charges are misdemeanors that carry up to 90 days in jail.
Biggest case since '06
The case is the biggest criminal prosecution against Milwaukee police officers since 2006, when eight officers were charged in federal court in connection with the beating of Frank Jude Jr. outside a Bay View party in 2004. Seven were convicted.
The charges in the strip search case were the result of complaints from "dozens and dozens" of citizens, according to Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm. The investigation was based in District Five on the city's north side, he said. All the officers charged are white. All the men subjected to the illegal searches are black.
In recent weeks, many in Milwaukee's African-American community, as well the Chicago-based Rainbow-Push coalition, have called for Flynn to resign or be fired.
The chief deflected questions about those demands Tuesday, saying misconduct occurs in every big-city police department.
Mayor Tom Barrett said he backs Flynn.
"I do not support removing the chief at this time," Barrett said. "I think these investigations need to move forward."
Four plead not guilty
The four officers all pleaded not guilty Tuesday afternoon before Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Jeffrey Wagner, who presided over the secret John Doe investigation into the searches. The officers, who are scheduled for preliminary hearings Nov. 2, and their attorneys declined to comment.
Several other officers who were taken off the streets during the strip-search investigation were not charged. They include Jeffrey Cline and Gregory Kuspa, who also were on the scene of the arrest of Williams, seen on a squad video gasping for air and begging for help as officers largely ignore him.
Also not charged were Jason Mucha, a sergeant who supervised some of the officers involved in the searches, and Michael Gasser, who said on Facebook he believed he would be cleared.
More than 50 people testified at the John Doe, 32 of them from the department, according to a news release. Many officers came forward to testify truthfully about behavior they witnessed, Chisholm said. Prosecutors took that into account when deciding whether to charge them, he said.
Jonathan Safran, a lawyer who represents two of the men who said they were assaulted, called the charges "another sad chapter" for the city and the department.
"This is, I am afraid, the tip of the iceberg," he said. "There is a culture in the Milwaukee Police Department that, unfortunately, has led to a number of civil rights violations."
Robin Shellow, a lawyer who represents one of the men prosecutors say was subjected to an illegal search, thanked Assistant District Attorney Miriam Falk for her thorough review of the case.
Shellow called Falk "a warrior in the fight for the civil rights of persons of color."
Like Safran, Shellow said she has spoken with other victims - including the mothers of underage boys - who were afraid to report the abuse because of their own criminal records.