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2nd officer pleads no contest in strip search

By M.L. JOHNSON
Associated Press

MILWAUKEE (AP) — One of four white Milwaukee police officers accused of conducting illegal strip searches of black suspects became the second Friday to plead no contest.

Jacob Knight entered the plea to a misdemeanor charge of an illegal body cavity search as part of a plea deal in which a felony misconduct charge was dismissed, online court records said.

The plea came two days after five men filed two federal lawsuits against the city of Milwaukee, its police department and eight officers, saying they were subjected to unwarranted and humiliating rectal probes. The lawsuits accuse five officers of using their fingers to probe the men’s rectal and genital areas without probable cause; two officers of watching but not stopping their fellow officers; and a police captain of failing to supervise her officers.

An internal police investigation led to charges being filed against four officers, including Knight, in October. Officer Michael Vagnini pleaded no contest to four felonies and four misdemeanors and was sentenced last month to 26 months in prison. Jury trials for the other two are scheduled to start later this month.

In Wisconsin, police officers are prohibited from doing any sort of cavity searches. Searches involving penetration can be only be performed by a doctor, physician’s assistant or registered nurse.

The plaintiffs allege that five white officers, under the premise of looking for drugs, used their fingers to probe the men’s rectal and genital areas without probable cause. Two men said even when no drugs were found in the searches, they were still arrested.

The plaintiffs’ attorneys said Thursday the men were subjected to “indecent, inhuman acts” in public view.

Knight is scheduled to be sentenced Oct. 4. His attorney did not immediately respond to a phone message left for comment.

Two men said during a Thursday news conference that officers stormed into their friend’s home without a warrant in November 2011 and then shoved two bare fingers into each man’s rectum without pausing to wash their hands or put on gloves.

One of the men, Anthony Pettis, estimated he’d been rectally probed about 30 times and said he didn’t believe the officers when they said they were searching for drugs.

“I think it’s a power trip, man,” Pettis said. “Race plays a role in it too.”

The Associated Press generally doesn’t identify victims of sexual assault but Pettis gave permission to be identified by name.

Attorney Robin Shellow, who represents the five plaintiffs in the civil case, told The Associated Press she has at least 10 more clients planning to file similar lawsuits. She said the youngest is 15 years old.

Other white Milwaukee police officers also have been accused of mistreating black men.

The most high-profile case came in 2004 when white off-duty police officers accused a biracial man of stealing a badge from a house party, threw him into the street and repeatedly punched and kicked him in the head. Thirteen officers were eventually disciplined and nine were fired. The man reached a $2 million settlement with the city.

More recently, a black man died in police custody in 2011 after struggling to breathe and pleading for help from the backseat of a police car. A federal prosecutor and special state prosecutor declined to charge the three white officers who were with the victim, saying the case was too weak to prove beyond a reasonable doubt.

Police spokesman Sgt. Mark Stanmeyer said he had no comment on Knight’s plea. Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm could not be reached after hours.

Associated Press writer Dinesh Ramde also contributed to this report.

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