By Bruce Vielmetti
Victims of a former Milwaukee police officer convicted of illegal body cavity searches are saying plenty to a judge in advance of Michael Vagnini's sentencing Friday, including comparing him to offenders at war crimes tribunals.
Vagnini, 34, pleaded no contest in April to four felonies and four misdemeanors stemming from his practice of conducting illegal strip searches and cavity searches on male suspects, but avoided conviction for sexual assault.
The felony convictions, for misconduct in public office, will cost Vagnini his job and could land him in prison.
Some victims have filed their own statements with the court, and some may speak on Friday. Attorneys for two groups of victims also filed letters with Circuit Judge Jeffrey Wagner, who will sentence Vagnini.
Jonathan Safran wrote:
"My clients have all expressed how their trust of police officers in general has been affected negatively; that many of them have felt like prisoners in their own neighborhoods, afraid to be outside due to fear of being stopped by the police, with no cause; that they were taken advantage of and robbed of their dignity, simply because of their skin color, socioeconomic background, and neighborhood where they live; and that Milwaukee Police Officers, in particular Michael Vagnini, took advantage of their authority and abused the trust and responsibility given to them to protect and serve them as citizens, but instead abused them physically and emotionally."
Safran wrote that some of his clients are upset Vagnini was allowed to plead to fewer than the original offenses charged, that what he did to some of them was never charged, and that Milwaukee police officials were aware of the abuses for some time before starting an investigation.
They want Vagnini to serve at least some time in prison "so as to punish him and to teach him and other police officers that they cannot violate people's rights and get away with those actions."
Robin Shellow's letter said her clients were victims of "the sodomy squad" which she said was motivated by racial prejudice.
"There has been much criticism that the victims have played the race card and that the race of the victims is unimportant here." Shellow wrote. "To believe so is to exhibit a naiveté on par with that of a four year old. The officers' handpicked the victims and -- to a person -- they were all African American, while the officers, as well as their supervisor Sergeant Jason Mucha, were all white."
She goes on to quote a passage from the tribunals to hear human rights violatons committed in Rwanda and Sarajevo describing the penetration of victims' bodies in coercive environments, and says it describes what Vagnini was doing.
Shellow lists other examples of male rape by invading or occupying armies around the world throughout the 20th century.
"It was not until the atrocities at Sarajevo that it was called a crime against humanity - unless you are black and live in Milwaukee and are a low-level drug dealer, then it is called an unclassified misdemeanor."
Shellow's client "LLR" specifically asks that Vagnini be incarcerated where he will be safe, that he undergo sex offender treatment and polygraphs meant to identify all his victims, that he be required to identify supervisors aware of the illegal searches and that he pay $10,000 for LLR to get counseling.
Vagnini has been suspended with pay pending the outcome of his case, and will be automatically removed from the city's payroll after his sentencing Friday, according to Fire and Police Commission executive director Michael Tobin.
Three other police officers charged with Vagnini - Jeffrey Dollhopf, Brian Kozelek and Jacob Knight - had their cases separated because they face fewer counts and were not charged with sexual assault. They are charged with misconduct in office and being parties to the crimes of illegal searches, based on their on-duty presence when prosecutors say Vagnini committed them.
They also are suspended with pay pending trials later this year.
- (06/21/2013) Officer charged with illegal strip searches sentenced (Doesn't have to register as a sex offender, video available)
- (10/10/2012) Four Milwaukee police officers (Michael Vagnini, Jeffrey Dollhopf, Jacob Knight, Brian Kozelek) charged in strip search case