MPD Chief Ed Flynn on Illegal Strip Searches
MPD Chief Ed Flynn has been in the hot seat for the past few weeks. In an apparent attempt to build a better case for the department, Flynn has been giving interviews to local media. Last Friday, Flynn stopped by the Shepherd’s offices to discuss Derek Williams' in-custody death and other matters. In this segment of our interview, Flynn talks about how four officers came to be criminally charged in connection to alleged illegal strip searches and sexual assault.
Shepherd: I read the criminal complaint [warning: the complaint is graphic] that alleged that one officer, Michael Vagnini, conducted illegal strip searches and assaults and three other officers watched and said nothing. I was completely horrified.
Flynn: Everybody should be.
Shepherd: What did you know about what was going on?
Flynn: Let’s back up. In 2010 we had a single complaint by a convicted drug dealer that there had been an illegal strip search conducted on him. We were unable to sustain that complaint. Meaning, there was no evidence, no testimony. One person’s word against another.
Shepherd: Was that against this officer?
Flynn: Let me finish the story.
Fast-forward a year. We get another complaint. This time we do the interviews and were concerned and we referred that complaint to the District Attorney’s office for prosecution. That’s a very busy office. They have a huge caseload. It took four or five months before they got back to us. They got back to us and said there was insufficient information to bring a criminal charge. They referred it to our investigators.
Internal affairs spent the next few months trying to locate the offender, the complainant. They spent the next few months trying to locate him. Sadly, while they were trying to locate him he got murdered by another drug dealer. We fast-forward several more months. It’s 2012. Two complaints come in during the same month. Same officer, same officer from 2011, same officer from 2012 [Ed’s note: 2010?].
We decide to cut to the chase. We went to the DA’s office and requested that he conduct a John Doe investigation because that can compel the truth. Nobody had ever done that with an internal investigation before. This police department, faced with complaints from convicted drug dealers, initiated a John Doe investigation because we took this seriously. As soon as we had sufficient information to make something happen we did. They opened up a John Doe investigation and we summoned a large number of—and we also held a press conference. As soon as I had the information I benched a total of eight officers. The investigation would ultimately reveal that only four were involved but I didn’t want to take any chances. I cast a wide net. Everybody who was working in that unit at that time got benched. I felt if this was going on we can’t take that risk that it continues another day. If it’s not going on I’m not going to have people doing drug investigations worry about being investigated.
The John Doe investigation lasted months as you know. Over 50 people were interviewed. I did a press conference and I asked for additional complainants to come forward. Additional complainants did come forward. A total of 32 officers gave testimony. I think 18 civilians did. That testimony resulted in the charges you have. At the same time, we notified the FBI we were doing the John Doe investigation. An FBI agent sat in on almost every interview that we did. As a result of the investigation we conducted by the Milwaukee Police Department we ended up bringing criminal charges against four officers. As soon as I knew we had an issue, I took action.
Shepherd: The allegations about Vagnini's conduct are really awful. Why do you think the three officers didn’t speak up when they saw what was going on?
Flynn: I can’t say. I don’t think it would be wise to speculate. Misguided loyalty perhaps. There is an expression used in the police business—“noble cause corruption”. It refers to a type of conduct that occurs when officers start to believe that the rules don’t apply as long as they are going after the “greater good”—seizing drugs and arresting bad guys. There are whole genres of police fiction of the rogue hero cop who breaks the law to enforce the law. It’s been identified as an issue in the subculture in some locations. Those are all things we can speculate about. My main obligation in this instance was to make sure the agency reacted quickly to what appeared to us to be significant misconduct and we did. And we’re seeking what we believe to be appropriate sanctions.
Shepherd: Is the end of the investigation?
Flynn: The John Doe is over. They are convened for specific reasons and specific investigations. Obviously, if more complaints come about different people, we will certainly look into them. It’s important to note that even though people talk about tips of icebergs, the fact of the matter is that of all of the complaints we’ve gotten and all of the drug arrests we’ve made, all of the complaints about this behavior was focused on a very small group of officers and they’ve been charged.
Shepherd: Have you dealt with this in the officers in your ranks? Have you reminded them that this conduct is illegal?
Flynn: This isn’t a training issue. This is a straight-up breaking the law misconduct issue. Everybody is trained in the laws of search and seizure. Everybody is made aware of what you are allowed to do and what you’re not allowed to do. Everybody knows that you are not allowed to conduct strip searches without a supervisor’s approval. And everybody knows that you can’t do a body cavity search without a warrant and a medical professional. So this is not a mystery to anybody.