Milwaukee Police Officer Michael Vagnini: Inserting His Authority

While it’s a broom handle shy of Abner Louima, it bears that personal touch that only a sick man with power, and the knowledge that his buddies wouldn’t rat him out, can appreciate.  Milwaukee cop MIchael Vagnini decided that he would insert his finger in the anus of “suspects” when and where he wanted to.

From the Journal-Sentinel :

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 lays out in graphic detail how the primary suspect, Officer Michael Vagnini, conducted searches of men’s 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.

Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn, whose department was “already under fire over the in-custody death of Derek Williams, detaining the mother of a slain boy and reporting inaccurate crime statistics to the FBI and the public,” who shirked off responsibility by saying that “misconduct occurs in every big-city police department,” offered some startling statements. For example:

All of the officers have been on the job long enough to know that the types of searches alleged were illegal and against policy, Flynn said.

Does he mean to suggest that cops, say for the year on the job, aren’t aware of the fact that they can’t anally rape suspects because they want to?  While Flynn now calls the conduct disgraceful, it wasn’t of sufficient concern to stop when the first complaints came in.

The charges issued Tuesday mark the end of an investigation that began in March, when the Police Department notified the district attorney’s office of the allegations.

At the time, Flynn said the department had been aware of complaints about potentially illegal searches for “a couple of years,” but waited to investigate until authorities recognized a pattern.

More than six months elapsed since the department decided to take the complaints seriously, but they were aware of the complaints “about potentially illegal searches” for years and did nothing.  Incidentally, there is nothing “potential” about the illegal searches. The insertion of a cop’s finger into the anus of a suspect is, without question, illegal. 

Flynn makes a point to note that this was intentional misconduct, which he emphatically distinguishes from mere “error.”  Error, he states, is treated differently.  Whether there is any scenario in which this could be error remains a mystery, unless he’s suggesting that Milwaukee hands a gun and shield to cops and puts them on the street unaware that they cannot insert their fingers into people’s anuses.  In which case, it was just a mistake, no matter how much damages they do.

To blame Vagnini is easy; it takes little cause to assert that this was a combination of a sick individual with the power to indulge his desire to torture, humiliate, inflict disgusting pain and suffering on others.  To blame the other cops who watched and did nothing is critical. That someone like Vagnini gains access to a shield can happen. That others watch the show, facilitate Vagnini’s crime, is inexcusable.  Obviously, the blue wall precludes their ratting out their brethren, no matter how sick he may be, but that provides no excuse.

What cannot be sanctioned is the department’s, Flynn’s, willingness to let this go on for years while doing nothing.  Attorneys for the victims of Vagnini say that there are others as well.

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.”

Like Safran, [Robin] 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.

This comes as no surprise, as one would anticipate only a fraction of those abused would complain, both out of fear as well as the belief that it’s a futile gesture.  And this should have been apparent when the first complaints rolled in, at which point an investigation should have begun had the Chief Flynn cared enough for the citizens of Milwaukee to stop it.  He obviously didn’t, as years elapsed while Vagnini continued to meet anuses he desired to enter.

As Jonathan Safran noted, the problem is one of culture, which is invariably at the heart of cops feelings empowered to do whatever the please on the streets.  But even with a culture that cares nothing for constitutional rights and empowers cops to do as they please without fear, conduct like this crosses the line of any somewhat civilized society.  That it’s not quite as evil as what was done to Abner Louima when NYPD cop Justin Volpe rammed a broom handle up his anus in a precinct bathroom doesn’t mean that it doesn’t fall far beyond the bounds of a disgusting and brutal assault. 

And yet, the Milwaukee Police Department was aware of complaints that citizens were being sodomized on the street by cops and ignored it, unworthy of even an investigation no less action, for years.  This didn’t happen because of one sick cop. This didn’t happen because a few others were cowards at best and enablers at worst.  This happened because Chief Flynn’s police department didn’t think it was worth the time or effort to stop it.  No amount of adjectives at a press conference now will absolve Flynn of his failure to act for years.

H/T  Radley Balko

10 thoughts on “Milwaukee Police Officer Michael Vagnini: Inserting His Authority

  1. Tom

    According to CopBlock one of the officers is facing 14 felony counts, including several counts of forcible sexual assault, and was given a PR bond.

  2. ShelbyC

    No, but if cops are getting special treatment as part of the bail process, istm that that’s worth noting, no?

  3. SHG

    Your multiple negatives aside (isn’t that worth noting, yes?), there are two important points to be made here that often eludes non-lawyers concerned about what appears to be police special treatment. First, bail is imposed to assure a defendant’s return to court and, according to the statutory basis, assure the safety of the community. There is nothing here to suggest that he will abscond, and as he’s been suspended from duty, he does not have the ability to commit a similar offense.

    Second, we do not punish cops because non-cops are treated improperly. We demand that non-cops receive the same consideration as anyone else, cops included, to proper bail.  In other words, rather than approach this as a cop-hater, approach this as a supporter of appropriate bail for all.

  4. Tom

    Scott, your knowledge and experience as a criminal defense attorney far exceed my own. I wholeheartedly agree with you that bail is not a punishment and I understand the coercive effect excessive bail has on a client’s (particularly low level ones) plea decision.

    That said,I think it is appropriate to consider the seriousness of the charge(s) when determining the likelihood the defendant will try to abscond. In my state the bail statute creates a rebuttal presumption against bail based on the seriousness of charge and the consequences involved.

    With these charges this officer is facing significant prison time and lifetime registration as a sex offender. It’s likely that he has greater means available to him than a typical defendant along with a large and sympathetic support network (“he was doing the wrong thing for the right reasons”) and a far greater knowledge of how police hunt fugitives. If he did decide to abscond his likelihood of avoiding capture greatly exceeds the typical defendant trying to hideout at his girlfriend’s house.

    This is not to say he should be held without bond. But, given how much he has to lose, the seriousness of the consequences involved, and the potential to successfully avoid capture. It would seem that some bond greater than PR would be much more appropriate. The only circumstance I think might justify a PR bond is if he’s a cooperating witness against the other officers involved.

  5. SHG

    I appreciate what you’re saying, and yes, one would expect that the charges would have drawn substantial bail, despite the absence of any reason to believe the defendant would flee aside from the seriousness of the charges, had the defendant not been a cop.  But bail would have been wrong, just as it would be wrong if the defendant wasn’t a cop.

    Here’s my issue: when I defend someone charged with a serious crime, who has significant ties to the community and nowhere else to go, I argue that they are as worthy of ROR as anyone else. Can I now be a hypocrite because this defendant is a butt-loving cop? As despicable as the charges may be, I can’t.  If there’s any virtue needed to be critical, it’s that we apply the same rules to those we despise as are done to our clients, who they despise.

  6. Jim Majkowski

    A Man for All Seasons (1960)
    Roper: So now you’d give the Devil benefit of law!
    More: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
    Roper: I’d cut down every law in England to do that!
    More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you — where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast — man’s laws, not God’s — and if you cut them down — and you’re just the man to do it — d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.
    Act I

    Sir Thomas More was, of course, trained in the law.

  7. ShelbyC

    In any event, this is the first allegation I’ve heard about where an anus was penetrated by a Vagnini.

  8. Pingback: Milwaukee P.O. Michael Vagnini: Short Time for a Long Finger | Simple Justice

Comments are closed.