MILWAUKEE — Five black men have filed federal lawsuits against eight white Milwaukee police officers accused of conducting or permitting illegal strip searches, marking another incident of racial tension in a police department still trying to mend its reputation among local minorities.
The two lawsuits filed Wednesday also named the city of Milwaukee and the Milwaukee police chief as defendants. The plaintiffs, who say they were subjected to unwarranted and humiliating rectal probes, are seeking unspecified damages that could be in the range of several hundred-thousand dollars.
In Wisconsin, police officers are prohibited from doing any sort of cavity searches. Searches involving penetration can be only be performed by a doctor, physician's assistant or registered nurse.
The plaintiffs allege that five white officers, under the premise of looking for drugs, used their fingers to probe the men's rectal and genital areas without probable cause. Two other officers are accused of watching but not stopping their fellow officers, and one is a police captain accused of failing to supervise her officers.
Two men said even when no drugs were found in the searches, they were still arrested. The plaintiffs' attorneys said Thursday the men were subjected to "indecent, inhuman acts" in public view.
Attorney Jon Loevy accused the police force of being more concerned with making arrests than with treating citizens with dignity.
"All of us understand police have a job to do, but there are rules, there are processes," Loevy told reporters at a news conference. "... The Milwaukee Police Department crossed the line."
The strip searches date back to at least 2010, according to the lawsuit, and an internal investigation led to criminal charges against four police officers. Officer Michael Vagnini pleaded no contest to four felonies and four misdemeanors in connection with the searches, and was sentenced last month to 26 months in prison. Jury trials for the other three are scheduled to start later this month.
Police Chief Edward Flynn has said his department responded appropriately to the allegations. He said he initiated an investigation and then turned the case over to prosecutors. Police spokesman Sgt. Mark Stanmeyer said they hadn't seen the court papers yet.
A message left with the Milwaukee city attorney was not immediately returned.
Plaintiffs Jerrold Ezell, 25, and Anthony Pettis, 23, appeared at Thursday's news conference. They said Vagnini and other officers stormed into their friend's home without a warrant in November 2011, and then shoved two bare fingers into each man's rectum without pausing to wash his hands or put on gloves.
"It wasn't right — to just come into the house and stick his fingers into us ..." Ezell said, his voice trailing off.
The Associated Press generally doesn't identify victims of sexual assault. However, Ezell and Pettis gave permission to be identified by name.
Pettis, who estimated he'd been rectally probed about 30 times, said he didn't believe the officers when they said they were searching for drugs.
"I think it's a power trip, man," Pettis said. "Race plays a role in it too."
Robin Shellow, another attorney representing the five plaintiffs, told the Associated Press she has at least 10 more clients planning to file similar lawsuits. She said the youngest is 15 years old.
This isn't the first time white Milwaukee police officers have been accused of mistreating black men.
The most high-profile case came in 2004 when white off-duty police officers accused a biracial man of stealing a badge from a house party. The officers threw Frank Jude Jr. into the street and repeatedly punched and kicked him in the head. Thirteen officers were eventually disciplined and nine of them were fired. Jude reached a $2 million settlement with the city.
More recently, a black man died in police custody in 2011 after struggling to breathe and pleading for help from the backseat of a police car. A federal prosecutor and special state prosecutor declined to charge the three white officers who were with the victim, saying the case was too weak to prove beyond a reasonable doubt.
The Justice Department is still reviewing whether it should sue the Milwaukee Police Department for a pattern of civil rights violations. U.S. Attorney James Santelle said Thursday the investigation was still going on, and that nothing was imminent.
Shellow said she was angry that the Justice Department wasn't moving faster to hold Milwaukee police accountable.
"I feel the federal government has abandoned people of color in the city of Milwaukee," she said. "... The citizens of Milwaukee have been subject to sexual assault in the name of the war on drugs."
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