Four Milwaukee police officers face multiple felony counts for allegedly performing numerous illegal body cavity searches on suspects over the past two years, authorities said Tuesday.
"The conduct alleged today is by any definition disgraceful and it's brought disgrace to the Milwaukee Police Department," Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn said at a news conference with Milwaukee District Attorney John Chisholm.
All four officers pleaded not guilty during their first appearance in court Tuesday.
Officer Michael Vagnini, 34, an eight-year veteran, was responsible for the most egregious misconduct, prosecutors said, and he faces the most serious charges, including second-degree sexual assault.
Vagnini faces 25 counts over allegations that he repeatedly broke the law by rectally probing suspects after traffic stops, at times without using protective gloves, while searching for drugs. Wisconsin state law mandates that only trained medical personnel can perform body cavity searches on criminal suspects. Vagnini also allegedly forced suspects to strip naked after their arrest without authorization.
The other officers charged in the complaint allegedly assisted Vagnini in the illegal searches and failed to intervene or report the misconduct. In one alleged incident, one officer placed a suspect in a choke hold, while another held a gun to the suspect's head, as Vagnini conducted an unauthorized rectal search on a public street.
The three other officers charged are Jeffrey Dollhopf, 41, Jacob Knight, 31, and Brian Kozelek, 33.
More than 30 Milwaukee police officers provided testimony validating the most serious allegations, Flynn said.
"It was our internal affairs division that first detected a disturbing pattern of complaints. This sounded the alarm," he said. "Our own police officers provided testimony that validated the complaints."
The charges come after a lengthy investigation that led to the suspension with pay of Vagnini and six other officers in May 2012 over allegations of widespread illegal searches.
A statement by Milwaukee police said more than 60 separate allegations of illegal searches were investigated during the probe.
"Wisconsin strip search law is designed to protect both the suspect and the police officers conducting the search by clearly setting forth the rules that regulate such searches," said District Attorney John Chisholm.
"The facts alleged in this complaint are serious breaches of that process."
Former Chicago Police Department detective and commander <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/01/21/jon-burge-sentencing-vict_n_812081.html" target="_hplink">Jon Burge is serving 4 1/2 years in jail</a> for his involvement in the alleged torture of more than 200 criminal suspects between 1972 and 1991. Reports that Burge and officers working under his command coerced suspects with violence to confess to crimes prompted former Governor George Ryan to end the death penalty in Illinois.
Chicago Police Officer <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/06/02/anthony-abbate-trial-cop_n_210379.html" target="_hplink">Anthony Abbate claimed he was acting defensively in a bar fight</a> against 125-pound bartender Karolina Obrycka until video footage was uncovered that showed Abbate was the aggressor. He was found guilty of aggravated battery in 2009.
The Special Operations Section
Several members of an elite unit of the Chicago Police Department dealing in street-level intelligence called the Special Operations Section were slapped with federal charges in September 2007 for robbery, kidnapping, home invasion and other charges that allegedly went on for years within the unit. Members of the unit were found to have <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/04/08/chicago-police-charged-wi_n_846528.html" target="_hplink">stolen money and property from suspected drug offenders and innocent civilians</a>, carrying out searches and seizures based on false evidence, and failing to report money and property confiscated from suspects. Two men stole nearly $600,000 on five separate occasions between 2004 and 2005. The unit was disbanded and replaced by the Mobile Strike Force.
Officer Jerome Finnigan a member of the Special Operations Section, took the high-crime operation even further. When investigations blew open the unit's illegal activity, Finnigan learned that one of his fellow officers was planning to testify against him in the robbery case and hired a member of a street gang to kill the officer for $5,000. Finnigan was found guilty and <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/09/08/ex-cop-jerome-finnigan-to_n_954019.html" target="_hplink">sentenced to 12 years in prison</a>.
Cook County Sheriff's Correctional <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/09/22/robert-buchanan-cook-coun_n_976096.html" target="_hplink">Officer Robert Buchanan was charged with sexual assault of a 10-year-old</a> more than 10 years after the offense allegedly took place after a raid on the Harvey Police Department found hundreds of untested rape kits. When tested, Buchanan, who was interviewed and released by police when the assault claim was filed in 1997, was found to match the DNA evidence taken from the victim. He was released on bond in late September and currently awaiting trial.