November 4, 2015

Striping Away Our Dignity

By Sen. Lena Taylor

Strip searching people strips them of more than their clothes; it strips them of their dignity. Too often, injustice is guised as public safety and while I agree that protection of the public is of vital importance, we must look at the degrading impact unaccountable strip searches will have on individuals and communities.

Wisconsin recognized the need for increased protection for privacy with the passage of Act 317 last legislative session, which protected individuals suspected of non-violent misdemeanors from having to be strip searched for 12 hours. This was a commonsense deal to protect the integrity of non-convicted individuals and to allow law enforcement to do their job. Everyone agrees that jails should be safe for employees and those detained but the risk of extensive abuse of strip searches.

Milwaukee has a terrible track record with strip searches and this bill is going to make our problems worse, not better. This issue has gotten so out of hand in Milwaukee that as of last year, the mayor had to create a budget item for the significant number of lawsuits we were facing over strip searches. Removing that 12 hour hold will overburden Milwaukee resources and degrade more individuals.

Last week, Senator Nikiya Harris Dodd and I held a press conference on Senate Bill 248, which is well on its way to the Senate Floor. This bill removes the current requirement that a person be arrested or detained for at least twelve hours before they are strip searched. I understand and concede that smaller communities may not have the resources to hold persons individually until they are strip searched and agree that everyone working in or detained in jail needs to be safe but the bill would further enflame the pushback against law enforcement in Milwaukee.

Let us examine two of the many horror stories of strip search abuse that is slowly becoming the norm in Milwaukee. In June 2013, Devin Raglan was a passenger in a car with two male friends. They were stopped by the police. When a bullet and marijuana were found on the driver, Raglan was also patted down. Next, however, Ragland was forced to drop his pants. An officer felt his testicles through his basketball shorts and when backup officers arrived, one pulled Ragland’s shorts and underwear away. Ragland was arrested for being a minor with cigarettes—certainly a crime, but a crime worthy of this level of humiliation? I think not. Ragland’s story is just one of many. A Milwaukee attorney I spoke with has 14 cases of unlawful strip searches pending in federal court. One involves a man who was strip searched in a Milwaukee jail. Officers thought he had drugs in his rectum so they made him attempt to defecate into a box on the floor to evacuate the drugs. I hate to spoil the ending for you, but this man had no drugs.

As a Milwaukee legislator on the Senate Judiciary Committee, I proposed a series of amendments that would address the need for jail safety and the unfortunate situation in Milwaukee. Two of my amendments kept the twelve hour hold in place for cities over 100, 000 people and for counties over 250,000 people while two other amendments kept the hold in place for Milwaukee city and Milwaukee county.

I understand the position law enforcement serving in smaller communities face and have shown that I am willing to compromise on this issue. I believe we can compromise, just as we have in the past with Act 317. However, when we have a demonstrated pattern of abuse in Milwaukee and when the degradation toward a person’s dignity is of this magnitude, it would be unconscionable for me to vote for the bill as it is.