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Discipline on hold in strip-search case



Published: Sat, April 9, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



The mayor says action will be taken soon.

By PEGGY SINKOVICH

VINDICATOR TRUMBULL STAFF

WARREN -- Police officers involved in alleged illegal strip searches in 2002 have not yet been disciplined, even though the city has paid thousands of dollars to settle lawsuits over the searches.

Further, the department is now the subject of a U.S. Department of Justice investigation.

Law Director Greg Hicks said any discipline would have to come from Police Chief John Mandopoulos. Hicks said he informed police officials sometime last year that they could go forward with discipline.

"When the allegations first surfaced and we had numerous lawsuits, I asked the chief not to go forward with any type of discipline until I talked to the attorney from the insurance company," Hicks said. "I advised them, before the last lawsuit was filed sometime last year, that they could move forward with discipline."

Mandopoulos did not return several calls seeking comment. The chief has said in the past that he did not believe his officers had any criminal intent when performing the searches.

Mayor Michael O'Brien said action will be taken soon.

"I can't say anymore right now, but this will be dealt with," the mayor said. He stressed that no strip searches have taken place since he's been in office. O'Brien began his term in January 2004.

Settlement

The city paid out $115,000 to settle several lawsuits filed by men who said they were illegally strip searched by city police after being stopped on traffic violations.

Last week, officials with the U.S. Justice Department were in town talking to former and current city officials and community leaders.

Fred Harris, former safety-service director, said the majority of questions he was asked dealt with the strip searches.

In February, Atty. John Gibbons, who was hired by Hicks to determine whether any officer involved in the strip searches should be criminally charged, announced that he believes laws were broken but that the statute of limitations had expired, making prosecution impossible.

"I think some sort of discipline needs to take place," said Councilman Al Novak, D-2nd. "I have people in the community asking me why nothing has happened. We don't have money to cut down trees or work on sidewalks because we had to pay money to settle these lawsuits, and now our insurance deductible has skyrocketed."

Bad reputation

Novak also said it's bad for the city's reputation not to discipline the officers.

"We are trying to get an entertainment district set up, and I think we need to take care of this issue so the public knows we took this seriously," Novak said.

Councilman Doc Pugh agreed.

"They need more than just additional training because they had this training on strip searches during the academy," Pugh said. "They should have known what they were doing was wrong."

In March 2003, Mandopoulos implemented a new departmental policy with strict guidelines on strip searches. The new guidelines, written by city police and law department officials, require doctors to be present during the most invasive searches.

In July 2003, The Vindicator reported that one officer admitted routinely conducting body-cavity searches and strip searches on male suspects even in minor crimes, according to an internal police investigation. That investigation was started because of a citizen's complaint, police officials said.

sinkovich@vindy.com




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