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Over a four year period, from 2008 to 2012 a group of armed criminals roamed the streets of Milwaukee’s 5th district. The group would target young black men, pull them off the streets by force, and then sexually assault them. Their typical MO would be for several of them to restrain the target while others did things like grab his testicles or insert their bare fingers into his anus. If the target resisted, they would force him to comply by putting him in a choke hold or holding a gun to his head.

The attacks were reported almost immediately to the local police department. And yet, despite the fact that Milwaukee PD knew the exact name and address of every one of the perpetrators, nothing was done to stop them. Why? Because the attackers were active duty members of the Milwaukee PD.

One Rogue Cop…

Eventually, the number of complaints and lawsuits began to grow, and someone needed to be held accountable. That person was Michael Vagnini. During his trial and subsequent sentencing, he was repeatedly portrayed as a “rogue cop” by departmental representatives:

“Rogue officers that are accused of committing crimes in order to obtain evidence don’t represent and don’t define the entire MPD,” Tobin said. “The charges, if proven, are inexcusable and tarnish the badge of every MPD officer.” – Michael Tobin, Executive Director of Fire and Police Commission

… Or an entire Corrupt System?

However, the rogue cop theory starts to fall apart when you consider that his superiors, including the police chief, were “aware of what Vagnini was doing.”  In fact, they delayed the internal investigation for years. When it was completed, it implicated nearly a dozen MPD officers. However, many escaped disciplinary action because the “evidence gathered as part of the internal investigation did not meet the standard to sustain (disciplinary) charges against other members.”

In other words, when the police investigated themselves, they did such a poor job of it that the evidence they collected would not stand up in court. Very convenient.

Vagnini’s lawyer, Michael Steinle, hinted at these systemic problems during Vagnini’s sentencing, saying, “[Vagnini’s] left holding the bag for everybody.” However, his direct supervisor, Sgt. Jason Mucha, was much more direct:

“I believe a good hard working officer is being punished for crimes he did not do just because they gave him no choice. … He did what his supervisors asked him to do and targeted certain violent drug dealers in the district.” (emphasis added)

A Slap on the Wrist

So what were the punishments? For 25 counts of assault and sexual assault, Vagnini received 26 months in prison. As part of his plea deal (you knew he got a deal, right?), “the sexual assault charge was voided… allowing Vagnini to avoid having to register as a sex offender.” Some of his henchmen were also convicted. However, it is difficult to say whether they were actually punished. Most received similar deals: $300 fine. Community service.  And up to a year of paid leave (!!!).

That’s how cops are punished for sexual assault. Had these defendants not been police officers, the sentences would most likely have been much stiffer. For example, around the same time that Vagnini and company were anally violating black men in Milwaukee, Michelle Lyn Taylor was convicted of lewd acts with a minor in Nevada. Her crime? Asking a 13 year old boy to touch her breasts. Unfortunately for Michelle, she was not a cop. So, she was offered no deal and under mandatory sentencing laws she received a LIFE SENTENCE and must register as a sex offender.

Rewarding Failure

When charges were filed against the MPD officers, Police Chief Ed Flynn said,

“Quite frankly, I’m disgusted by the willful actions by some of the officers in our Police Department.  And I’m appalled by the willful inaction of some other officers in our police department in failing to stop egregious conduct” – MPD Police Chief Ed Flynn

And yet, in the aftermath of the charges, many of the people directly responsible for supervising Vagnini have been rewarded. Michael Brunson, Vagnini’s watch commander during his reign of terror, was promoted to Deputy Inspector in charge of Internal Affairs. Vagnini’s captain, Edith Hudson, was promoted Assistant Chief. And Sgt. Jason Mucha, Vagnini’s direct supervisor, retired from the force. He now receives $60,000 a year for life courtesy of the taxpayers of Milwaukee.

It’s difficult to say whether the justice system worked or not. One cop received an incredibly light sentence. A few more got off with a year’s salary, community service and a $300 fine. And the people responsible for supervising the bad cops got promoted. The only people who really are getting punished are the taxpayers of Milwaukee, who will be left footing the bill.

Where Were the Good Cops?

Whenever the police are criticized, there is an inevitable surge of people that rush to defend them saying “The majority of cops are Good Cops.”  And just as inevitably, they are met with the reply: “Well then, where are they? If there are so many good cops, why do bad cops get away with things for so long? Why do they protect guys like Vagnini? Why don’t they turn him in? If there are so many good cops, why don’t they stop the bad ones?”

Because they are afraid to.

Michael Gasser and Zachary Thoms are apparently good cops.  Both are currently employed by the MPD. Gasser is a training officer for MPD rookies. And neither one was charged in the illegal cavity search scandal. And yet, both of the men were present when these searches took place. Both did nothing to stop them. And both made deals with prosecutors to avoid punishment.

How did they get away with it? They pleaded ignorance. Both men said that they did not know there was anything wrong with the searches. They said they were unaware that it was illegal for anyone but a doctor to perform a cavity search.  And it worked. Prosecutors gave both men deals that allowed them to keep their jobs and avoid any criminal charges.

Final Repercussions

But Zacharay Thoms made a mistake. He started telling the truth. As part of his deal, he agreed to cooperate with prosecutors. And, in doing so, he gave them damaging information about other cops.  That’s when the harassment started. The same day that Thoms received his written deal, Vagnini punched him in the face. According to Brendan Matthews, Thoms’ attorney, that was just the start:

…another officer had asked Thoms to stand up in his wedding, but after Thoms’ cooperation was made known, he was uninvited…

The way Thoms has been treated is proof the so-called blue wall of silence — in which department members who speak out against their fellow officers face harassment and ostracism — still exists in Milwaukee…

“Quite literally, the guy has no friends on the department,” the attorney said. “He has no friends; he’s seen as a rat. That’s very unfortunate because he’s a really nice guy and all he did was tell the truth.”

And that’s why you don’t see a lot of good cops turning in bad cops. Because of systemic corruption and culture within the department, it can be hazardous to your career and your health.

Cops can tolerate quite a bit. They can overlook a few illegal anal searches. They can ignore planting some drugs here and there. No warrant. Whatever. But the one thing they will never forgive is a cop who rats out another cop. Because even if the bad cop performs criminal anal cavity searches, he’s still a cop. And given the choice between protecting you, your rights, or another cop, a cop will choose the other cop every time.

 

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