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Warren can't pretend that strip searches weren't wrong



Published: Fri, February 25, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



If every suspect in Warren were treated the way police officers accused of wrongdoing are treated, no one would be arrested, no one would be charged, no one would be punished.

The latest travesty of justice involves officers accused of conducting illegal strip searches. First, Police Chief John Mandopoulos declared that he didn't see any evidence of criminal intent in the searches. Then Greg Hicks, the city law director, delayed an investigation into the searches until after civil suits brought by the men searched had been settled. Finally, the special prosecutor Hicks enlisted to conduct an investigation, John Gibbons, announced that he believes the law was broken, but the statute of limitations has expired making prosecution impossible.

Now, the best that can be hoped for is some sort of departmental discipline to be brought against the officers, but given the tendency of Mandopoulos to put on blinders whenever one of his officers is accused of mistreating someone or violating someone's rights, don't look for the chief to respond.

Mandopoulos sees nothing

Consider his initial reaction, that he didn't believe the officers acted with criminal intent. What does that mean?

Ohio law is quite clear and it is specifically aimed at law enforcement personnel (a strip search conducted by anyone else would be a sexual assault).

The statute reads: "Except as authorized by this division, no law enforcement officer, other employee of a law enforcement agency, physician or registered nurse or licensed practical nurse shall conduct or cause to be conducted a body cavity search or a strip search." The law sets out narrow exceptions under which strip searches may be conducted, requires that a warrant first be obtained, unless a medical emergency exists, and requires that a written report be filed after the search is conducted.

Conducting an illegal strip-search is a first-degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. It is a fourth-degree misdemeanor if officers do not write a report after performing a strip search.

How does a trained police officer violate that law without intent? Surely the chief is not suggesting that his officers did not know the law exists. That would be an admission of under-training and gross mismanagement in the department. And surely the chief is not suggesting that ignorance of the law would absolve the officer of criminal intent. That would invite anarchy.

Not only wrong, but expensive

The illegal strip searches not only added to the police department's reputation as a department that lacks discipline, it cost the city more than $115,000 to settle lawsuits and led to the city's insurance deductible to be increased from 25,000 per lawsuit to $250,000 per lawsuit. The increase in deductible has a potential to cost the city millions of dollars in the future, especially given the recalcitrance of Mandopoulos.

It is time for Mayor Michael O'Brien to step in and demand that Mandopoulos send a message to his department that ignorance of the law is not an excuse and that flouting the law will not be tolerated.

If the mayor doesn't insist that the police chief discipline officers who clearly violated the law and escaped prosecution only through a technicality, there will be more misbehavior and there will be more lawsuits. And O'Brien will bear as much responsibility for the costs of the inevitable lawsuits as Mandopoulos.




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