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A Big Boot Drops on Police Misconduct

Aug. 12, 2014
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Taking Liberties
One of the greatest inequities tolerated in urban America has been the white community’s acceptance of the totally unacceptable ways that the police treat people of color.

We’re talking about physical mistreatment rising from automatic assumptions of guilt based on skin color that has become routine in inner cities.

It’s treatment police would never dare commit in white neighborhoods. Yet, otherwise decent white folks and their political leaders seldom speak out or act to stop it as long as it only happens to people who don’t look like them.

That’s why it was huge, in more ways than one, when a jury in federal court awarded more than a half-million dollars to the victim in the first of what’s expected to be a steady series of lawsuits against Milwaukee police officers accused of some of the ugliest, illegal body searches imaginable.

This was in Milwaukee, where juries used to automatically accept any behavior by police officers in black and Latino neighborhoods up to and including deadly force.

When police shot suspects, district attorneys would call inquest juries. But they became hollow exercises because juries always ruled homicides at the hands of police were justified, whatever the circumstances.

So what mistreatment of young blacks finally seems to push juries over the edge to reconsider how police should treat people they stop in city neighborhoods?

Anal searches are something most of us don’t want to think about under any circumstances.

It gets even worse when lawsuits filed by more than 60 people claim these invasive anal searches and other crude, sexually humiliating procedures often took place during daylight hours on public streets in full view of neighbors and other witnesses.

When we’re forced to think about that, most of us cannot help thinking about what it would be like going through something so completely unacceptable ourselves in our own neighborhoods. For a traffic stop.

It chills us even though we know absolutely that the police would never do it to anyone like us.

But no one was shocked when large numbers of black males came forward over the past year telling of such searches regularly taking place in their neighborhoods.


Victim Was Assaulted

While many readers cringed at the initial details, eventually those stories faded. The media started sanitizing the crimes, referring to them as “strip searches” or “cavity searches” as if police were examining bad teeth.

Even as he promised to investigate these violations of department policies, Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn first suggested some police officers might simply be overzealous in pursuing crime.

It was an odd reaction from a police chief toward a crime by police that, if committed by ordinary citizens, could result in convictions for sexual assault and having their names placed on the state’s public list of sexual predators for the rest of their lives.

Anal searches by police officers are illegal under state law and are prohibited by the Milwaukee Police Department. The law requires such searches to be performed by a doctor, physician’s assistant or a registered nurse, not some ham-fisted cop on a public street.

Still, no one was surprised that only one MPD officer, Michael Vagnini, was charged. He pleaded no contest to four felonies and was sentenced to 26 months in prison. Three other officers pleaded to misdemeanors.

Like mistreatment of citizens of color in certain neighborhoods, a token conviction seemed to be business as usual.

Then last week that big $506,000 boot dropped on police misconduct.

The case of Leo Hardy, a black man searched outside his mother’s house in her neighborhood, wasn’t even one of the most egregious, invasive searches alleged in the complaints against the department.

Hardy testified that an officer groped his penis down the front of his underwear and touched between his buttocks. Asked in court how he felt during the search, Hardy said: “I kind of hate to say it this way, but humiliated. Degraded. Assaulted.”

And, of course, that’s exactly how police have made black men feel for a long time, treating them as criminals from an early age. It creates anger and alienation in the black community that often exacts a terrible price in our cities. But police have seldom paid any price until now.

The bulk of the award, $500,000, was for punitive damages to punish improper behavior. It was just the first lawsuit tried against the city over illegal searches. Similar lawsuits have cost Chicago more than $100 million.

One of the truest statements I’ve ever heard from a politician was from young U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, when he said most of the human inequities perpetuated in our society are the result of “our failure to see ourselves in others.”

It could profoundly change how the criminal justice system treats the actions of police officers if juries in Milwaukee are now able to see themselves in those who live in our most heavily policed neighborhoods.


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