Four MPD officers charged for conducting illegal strip searches

MILWAUKEE — Four Milwaukee police officers were charged Tuesday, October 9th for criminal misconduct related to illegal strip searches of individuals in the community. Victims have filed notices claiming they were illegally searched.

34-year-old Officer Michael Vagnini faces 25 counts of violating the strip search law, misconduct in public office and second-degree sexual assault. If convicted of these crimes, Vagnini faces up to 40 years in prison and $100,000 in fines.

41-year-old Officer Jeffrey Dollhopf faces two counts of violating the strip search law and two counts of misconduct in public office.

Officers Brian Kozelek, 33 and Jacob Knight, 31 each face one count of violating the strip search law and one count of misconduct in public office.

The criminal complaint in the case details incidents spanning from February of 2010 to February of 2012.

CLICK HERE to read the entire criminal complaint. WARNING: the content described in the complaint is graphic and not suitable for all readers.

In a news conference on Tuesday afternoon, District Attorney John Chisholm and Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn talked about the seriousness of the charges in this case, and said he’s “disgusted” and “appalled” by the allegations.

“The conduct alleged today is by any definition disgraceful and it’s both a disgrace to the Milwaukee Police Department, and a hard-earned reputation has been tarnished. It’s a disappointing day for me, it’s a disappointing day for the Milwaukee Police Department and it’s a disappointing day for this city that we’re all sworn to protect,” Chief Flynn said.

Chisholm indicated the seven-month investigation was initiated by MPD Internal Affairs. He had extensive help from the FBI and relied on the work of investigators and the cooperation of citizens and officers to make the investigation as complete as possible. Chief Flynn and Chisholm said the investigation found the mistreatment was focused on select officers from District 5.

“I’m disgusted by the willful actions of some of the officers in our department. I’m appalled by the willful inaction by some of the officers in our department. Crime cannot be fought with criminality. Those who enforce the criminal law must obey the criminal law while enforcing it. The only appropriate response is criminal charges,” Chief Flynn said.

Chief Flynn didn’t spend any time Tuesday afternoon talking about the officers charged personally — but said they are suspended with pay pending an internal investigation that will begin immediately.

When asked about how long the accused officers have been with the department, Chief Flynn said: “Everybody on the force has been there long enough to know better.”

Chief Flynn said MPD’s internal investigation will move independently of the criminal trial and when it’s done, his office will make recommendations to the Milwaukee Fire and Police Commission.

The Milwaukee Police Association — the union representing most of Milwaukee’s police officers issued the following statement following Tuesday’s announcement of charges filed:

“When hard-working officers are pushed to performance levels mandated by quota-like requirements, as a result of statistically-computerized databases which in part, focuses on arrests, citations, vehicle stops — the system fractures. When the Department’s push for ‘numbers’ becomes more important than the service to community, it places our officers in a compromising position — produce the ‘numbers’ or face transfer, or worse.”

“When officers are forced to achieve (database) requirements under fear of reprisal — supervisors are the ones rewarded. Lieutenants are promoted to Captains, Captains to Deputy Inspectors and so on — all serving the Chief’s directive.”

“The Department’s agenda to break up divisions which had offered oversight and ensured compliance is certainly a cause for the current events. The Fire and Police Commission, City Hall and members of the Common Council were all apprised of the Association’s concerns. Now, or community pays the price.”

“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 Milwaukee Police Association proudly represents 1,700 professional officers. We trust that the community will not rush to judgement with respect to the allegations filed against four of our officers today.”

The criminal complaint against the officers details several instances in which illegal strip searches were allegedly conducted. Many of the allegations began with a traffic stop, leading to a pat down and eventually what prosecutors say were illegal cavity searches.

The first occurred during a traffic stop near 12th and Locust on February 27th. In this instance, Officer Vagnini asked the driver of the car that was pulled over for “the drugs.” The complaint indicates Vagnini put the person in a choke hold and “stuck his gloved hand inside” the person’s pants, possibly into the person’s anus, and “recovered a clear plastic sandwich bag…containing cocaine base.” The person experienced bleeding from his anal area and filed a complaint while in custody because he did not consent to the search.

The complaint details multiple other instances in which the officers accused made illegal strip searches during traffic stops as well as at the District 5 police station. In each of the cases, the officers were allegedly attempting to get drugs they believed were concealed within body cavities on the persons they were searching.

During one instance in July described in the complaint, Officer Vagnini “was laughing” at the person he was searching in the garage area of the District 5 police station. This alleged victim was reportedly asked to remove drugs from his anus himself, and the man said he had none. At that time, according to the criminal complaint, Officer Vagnini allegedly became frustrated and got a brown box and told the man to defecate into the box and he would then let him go.

According to the police department, an officer is allowed to perform a strip search when they have written permission from the chief, and have probable cause to believe the detained person is concealing a weapon. These types of searches are not allowed to take place in front of the eyes of anyone not conducting the search. 

Under the department’s policy and state law, cavity searches may only be performed by physicians, physician’s assistants or nurses.

Originally, seven officers and one supervisor were taken off the streets in connection with the investigation. Four were restored to active duty.

If an officer is found to have conducted an illegal strip search, they could face up to 90 days in jail and up to $1,000 in fines.

The four officers charged have been suspended without pay.

Monitor FOX6 News and FOX6Now.com for updates on this developing story.

CLICK HERE for more stories on the alleged illegal strip searches conducted by MPD officers.

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