Posted on Jun 10, 2013

In the wake of an illegal strip search scandal, the Milwaukee Police Department (MPD) has implemented a new policy to regulate the way that officers interact with citizens and keep tabs on all informal, consensual searches.

Essentially, the intention of the new policy is to ease the tension between police and the community in light of the scandal and provide MPD with a record of all the people who are stopped and searched, which they don’t currently have. For the first time, police will also document all consensual searches and provide audio and video recordings when someone verbally consents, but chooses not to sign the form.

The old policy, just like the new one, required a report disclosing the date, location and a reason for the search. Officers were also expected to provide a copy to the person they were searching and obtain written approval from a superior. Unfortunately, records indicate that police were regularly breeching this policy.

On October 9, 2012, four Milwaukee police officers were charged with criminal misconduct for illegal strip searches. The alleged ringleader, Officer Michael Vagnini, eluded sexual assault charges in a plea deal, but still lost his job. The other three will be tried separately beginning in June 2013.

These four officers allegedly conducted strip searches and cavity searches during traffic stops and at the District 5 police station. But even back then, strip searches were only to take place in private and cavity searches were to be done by doctors and physicians, not police officers.

As well-intentioned as the new policy seems, one lingering question remains: If police didn’t follow the old policy, how can we be sure that they’ll follow the new one? When the illegal searches allegedly occurred, there was already a policy in place forbidding such behavior by police. One might argue that the real issue is making sure the rules are followed rather than changing them.

The purpose of the new policy is to ensure that MPD has thorough documentation of all searches to keep officers from crossing the line when dealing with citizens. But the old policy had those same goals in mind and wasn’t successful. It remains to be seen whether or not the new policy will be more effective.

Jill Erin Wellskopf
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