Milwaukee Common Council to Consider $5 Million Settlement in Illegal Strip Search Lawsuit

Allegations of police misconduct could cost the City of Milwaukee big.

Its proposing a $5 million deal to settle dozens of lawsuits that claim officers conducted illegal strip and body cavity searches.

"I have clients that have dealt with significant ongoing mental anguish regarding this," said attorney Jon Safran.

Safran represents 14 of the 74 clients in what he calls a difficult case.

"There have been four police officers that were charged criminally and convicted," he said.

One of them is Michael Vagnini.

Two years ago, he was sentenced to 26 months in prison for illegal strip and body cavity searches on drug suspects. Some of those searches on black men happened on the streets. Others at the District  5 police station.

"I feel like it was a low-ball settlement for the victims," said Tory Lowe. "It can never pay for the pain, anguish and embarrassment they had to go through."
Lowe, a community activist, helped organize some of the lawsuits, that include a team of 15 attorneys.

Their firms will share about $2.3 million for fees and costs. The claimants will get $2.7 million and individual amounts are based on the nature of the search each man suffered. The proposal also requires clients to pay off debts, like child support, totaling $900,000.

"It allows our clients to pay some of those off and move on with their lives when they might not have been able to do so before," Safran said. "[It] allows the city, county and state to get money and families to get monies that are owed to them."

Safran said the agreement is the accountability victims have been fighting for.

But, in a statement, city attorney Grant Langley said, "the City has denied liability in all cases and the settlement is in the City's best interests."

All agree it's a step forward, but Lowe said money isn't a cure.

"No amount of money can restore trust," said Lowe. "You have to have direct contact and show some results and that's what we're looking for, we're looking for an adjustment in patterns and practices of the Milwaukee Police Department."

There are still other cases pending that the city attorney said will be handled individually.

As for this settlement, the city needs to borrow the money to pay for it. But before anything is final, the Milwaukee Common Council and Mayor Tom Barrett have to approve it, which is expected to happen by the end of January.

This is the correspondence Langley sent to the Common Council:

Milwaukee City Attorney Grant F. Langley announced today that the Milwaukee Common Council will consider approval of a group settlement of lawsuits claiming unlawful body cavity and strip searches, and alleging an unwritten policy of unlawful stops and searches by the Milwaukee Police Department. 

The settlement provides a total of $5 million dollars that will cover the attorney fees and costs incurred by five law firms representing 74 plaintiffs and claimants, and will end litigation in 14 lawsuits pending in federal court.

The settlement provides approximately $2.3 million dollars in attorney fees and costs, and $2.7 million dollars in compensation to the plaintiffs. The agreement also provides that the plaintiffs will pay almost $900,000 in child support, restitution and other documented debts.

Although the City has denied liability in all cases, the City Attorney states that the settlement is in the City’s best interests when considering the risk of potential compensatory and punitive damages and attorneys’ fees. A copy of the City Attorney’s communication to the Common Council is attached.

The attorneys for the litigants sent CBS 58 this statement:

Lawyers for 74 African American Men who have alleged that they were subjected to illegal and unconstitutional strip and body cavity searches are announcing today that they have reached agreement with the Milwaukee City Attorney's Office on a precedent setting $5 million settlement. Most of the 74 men were unconstitutionally searched by a unit of white Milwaukee Police Department officers led by former officer Michael Vagnini, who was subsequently charged and convicted of engaging in official misconduct and illegal strip searches. 

A team of twelve lawyers from two Chicago and three Milwaukee law firms spent more than two years uncovering, analyzing and presenting a voluminous amount of evidence which included testimony and documentation demonstrating that the MPD engaged in a pattern and practice of illegal searches of African American  men. The legal team's work included the questioning under oath of some 50 MPD officers from MPD Chief Edward Flynn and former MPD Chief Nanette Hegerty to Vagnini and his fellow officers, representing many of the search victims and their depositions, obtaining from the City more than 100,000 pages in documents, and filing thousands of pages in briefs in response to numerous City's motions, work that necessitated 7000 to 8000 hours in billable attorney time, and more than $200,000 in out-of-pocket costs. 

The settlement, representing the largest number of civil rights claimants in a police misconduct settlement against the City of Milwaukee, is apportioned as follows: the 74 men will share, after out-of-pocket costs are deducted $2,716,173 with each individual claimant after being placed, for compensation purposes, into one of three categories, depending on the nature of the search that he suffered. The five law firms will share $2,065,000 in attorney's fees, apportioned in accordance with the billable time expended on the case, and will be reimburse for their out-of-pocket costs and expenses in the amount of $218,827. At the City's insistence, the men have agreed to satisfy the claims of many of their creditors out of their share of the money. The agreement will not be final until the City of Milwaukee Common Council and Mayor Barrett give approval, which is expected to occur by the end of January.

Mayor Barret Released this statement:

“This settlement closes 74 cases with $2.7 million being awarded to the plaintiffs. Before anyone can collect; however, they must clear any warrants and pay off any government debts, including back child support. One-third of the settlement to the plaintiffs, or $900,000, will go toward child support and other debts owed. $2.3 million of the settlement would go to the plaintiffs' attorneys. It’s important to note, once again, that Chief Flynn notified the authorities once he established the facts. As a result, four officers were convicted of crimes in connection with illegal strip and cavity searches. They were forced to resign as a result. One of them, Michael Vagnini, pleaded no contest to four felonies and four misdemeanors not related to the Wright case and is serving a 26-month prison term. The others were convicted of misdemeanors.”

Share this article: