Milwaukee County prosecutors have launched a secret John Doe investigation to determine whether seven Milwaukee police officers and a supervisor broke the law while conducting strip searches in District 5, sources confirmed Monday.
The complaints - which Chief Edward Flynn acknowledged go back a couple of years - include allegations that officers sexually assaulted people and violated their civil rights while conducting rectal searches for drugs on the street.
The department did not begin its investigation until last week, when internal affairs picked up a pattern, according to Flynn.
The seven officers and Sgt. Jason Mucha, all of District 5, have been stripped of their badges and guns and reassigned to desk duty in different districts while the investigation is pending, according to police sources.
A John Doe investigation is a secret inquiry in which prosecutors can compel testimony and subpoena records and other documents without public knowledge.
Jonathan Cermele, whose firm represents the Milwaukee police union, acknowledged Monday that he is representing several of the officers. But he declined to say whether any of his clients had been called before Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Jeffrey Wagner, who is presiding over the John Doe proceedings.
One of the accused officers, Michael Gasser, said the investigation will not change the way he does his job, according to a posting on his Facebook account.
"My first day back I will not hesitate to go right back to doing exactly what I was doing before," the posting says.
The post also thanks fellow officers for their support while he is off the streets and says he is confident all the targets of the investigation will be cleared.
Gasser did not respond to an emailed request asking him to discuss the situation further. There is no discipline on his police personnel record.
Mucha, who has been investigated in the past after suspects accused him of beating them and planting drugs on them, also did not respond to an emailed request for an interview.
Mucha has not been disciplined or criminally charged in connection with any of the past complaints. Despite being the focus of a 2006 court case that opened the door for juries to hear about officers' past wrongdoing and giving inconsistent testimony that caused a 2010 federal gun case to fall apart, he continued to work as a supervisor until he was reassigned last week.
John Does unusual
Milwaukee County prosecutors usually have reserved John Doe investigations for sensitive political cases.
District Attorney John Chisholm's office has conducted John Does when investigating a Milwaukee alderman, two Milwaukee County supervisors, two special-interest groups and former and current aides to Gov. Scott Walker during his tenure as county executive. Most have resulted in criminal charges.
John Does were not used to investigate two high-profile police misconduct cases: the 2004 beating of Frank Jude Jr. by a group of off-duty officers and the 2010 rape of a woman who called 911 by then-Officer Ladmarald Cates.
Former Milwaukee County District Attorney E. Michael McCann charged three officers in the Jude beating. They were acquitted at trial. After that, federal authorities did an investigation that led to convictions of seven officers. Jude recently settled his civil rights case against the city for $2 million. However, the tab is likely to top $2.5 million when legal fees and other expenses are included.
Chisholm declined to prosecute Cates. He, too, was later convicted in federal court.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Mel Johnson, who prosecuted both of those cases, said last week that he was not involved in the current investigation but was interested to see how it unfolds.
He said there have been several instances in the past where the U.S. attorney's office has had questions about searches performed by Milwaukee police officers. None of those cases, however, rose to the level of being actionable, he said. He did not provide details.
At a news conference last week, Flynn said the internal investigation is focused on whether the searches violated department policy, state law or both.
Both the law and the policy forbid police officers from doing a cavity search under any circumstances. Such searches, which involve penetration, can be performed only by a doctor, physician assistant or registered nurse.
A search warrant also is required for a cavity search, according to the department's Standard Operating Procedures. John Birdsall, a Milwaukee defense attorney, said police are "clearly not authorized" to do body cavity searches.
"That's like a sexual assault," he said. "One thing is clear, if they're doing rectal searches in the field, that's just illegal. . . . Clothes or no clothes, you can't do a body cavity search. They don't have the authority to do that."
Only in private
Strip-searches, which involve uncovering and either exposing or touching a person's genitals, pubic area, buttocks, anus or a woman's breasts, can be conducted only after someone has been arrested. Such searches must be done in private. The officer who does the search must be of the same sex as the arrestee and must obtain written permission of the police chief or another law enforcement administrator beforehand - unless the officer thinks the person is concealing a weapon.
Strip-searches can't be performed unless the officer has "probable cause to believe a person in custody has secreted a weapon or evidence," according to department policy.
After a strip search, the officer must prepare a report that includes the names of the people who conducted it, the time and place and a copy of the written authorization. The officer must give a copy of the report to the detainee.
When news of the investigation into the improper searches broke last week, Common Council President Willie Hines called the alleged activities "dehumanizing transgressions" and said officers should be held to a higher standard.
"When the public learns that instead of protecting citizens, some officers are accused of sexually assaulting and violating citizens' civil rights, the path to trust seems almost like an impossible journey," he said in a statement.
The department's initial statement, issued last Tuesday, referenced only "possible policy violations" and said the department would have no further comment while the matter was pending.
After details of the investigation were widely reported Wednesday, Flynn made an appeal for victims to come forward at a Thursday news conference.
At a Saturday candidate forum on the north side, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett lauded Flynn for doing so.
Barrett described the allegations as serious and said the officers should be punished if an investigation finds they did something wrong - or vindicated if they are innocent.