The end of 2013 brought a measure of closure to a long-running Milwaukee police scandal, though some say the officer — and his cohorts — who repeatedly and illegally shoved his fingers up black male suspects’ anal cavities got off with a light sentence considering the flagrant nature of his abuses.
The ringleader was identified as officer Michael Vagnini, a white man who routinely targeted black males as young as fifteen for sadistic — and blatantly illegal — anal searches.
One victim said that another officer put a gun to his head while Vagnini administered a choke hold, touched his scrotum and fingered his anus. Another man was probed so violently that he bled.
Wisconsin law clearly prohibits police officers from administering cavity searches. Only medical professionals may do so, and only when authorized by a warrant.
But lack of a warrant or a medical degree did not stop Vagnini from sticking his fingers inside a 15-year-old boy’s anus and touching his genitals during a traffic stop in December of 2011.
The Journal Sentinel documented at least a dozen similar instances of Vagnini performing invasive, illegal searches on black men. According to his reports, some of the victims were indeed carrying drugs, though they contend that the officer lied about the details and even planted drugs inside their bodies.
One man, Keon Canada, was searched by Milwaukee police on four separate occasions. They searched his buttcheeks and opened the front of his pants. No drugs were found during any of the searches.
Vagnini rarely used gloves when he probed their anuses, the victims contend. He also stole personal items and laughed when asked to present a warrant.
Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn gradually became aware of what Vagnini was doing but had to wait “a couple of years,” for a proper investigation to take place. Eventually, Vagnini was charged with 25 counts of assault and sexual assault against at least a dozen victims.
For his crimes, Vagnini will serve a little over two years in jail.
As part of a plea deal accepted earlier this year, he admitted his guilt on four felony and four misdemeanor charges, earning 26 months in jail. The sexual assault charge was voided by the deal, allowing Vagnini to avoid having to register as a sex offender.
Vagnini did not act alone, although most reports conclude that he was the only officer administering anal cavity searches. At least four other officers–Jacob Knight, Jeffrey Dolhopf, Brian Kozelak and Jason Mucha–assisted Vagnini by holding down the victims, or turned a blind eye and failed to report obvious abuse to superior officers.
The last of Vagnini’s henchman were sentenced earlier this month. Their punishments amounted to little more than community service and fines in the hundreds of dollars.
Each were forced to quit the police force — after receiving paid leave for months while the investigation took place.
It’s an all-too-easy punishment for Vagnini and his fellow officers, said Jonathan Safran, an attorney for one of the victims.
“I’m not sure if it’s strong enough,” said Safran in a statement, referring specifically to the sentencing of Knight.
Safran and others have alleged that the abuse actually included more officers than just those five.
Vagnini’s lawyer defended his client by noting that the officer’s tactics were encouraged by the department as a way to catch and deter drug offenders in Milwaukee.
The police department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Anal cavity searches — a tactic in U.S. law enforcement’s War on Drugs — are receiving scrutiny from many in the media this year. New Mexico police are accused of arresting random drivers, escorting them to hospitals and forcing them to undergo anal surgery — all in pursuit of drugs.