MILWAUKEE - The owner of a private cigar lounge is suing Milwaukee police for violating his civil rights after a trip to the emergency room led to a five-officer pile-on.
Michael Poe, 45, accuses police of using excessive force and illegally detaining him after he and another man rushed their friend to Ascension Columbia-St. Mary's hospital with a gunshot wound in April 2021.
According to the complaint filed Wednesday by civil rights attorney James Gende, Poe was being "fully cooperative" with police when officers insisted that he accompany them to a squad car for questioning. When Poe refused, the complaint says officers "escalated the nature of the peaceful encounter…into a violent takedown."
Cell phone video captured by a witness in the hospital lobby shows Poe seated in a chair, describing to officers how a bullet entered through the ceiling of the lounge, striking a man seated next to him in the leg. A second witness who'd been separated from Poe by police gave the same account.
Body camera video shows officers who responded to the lounge found a bullet hole in the ceiling consistent with the story both witnesses told. Officers talking to Poe appear satisfied with the explanation until a second shooting victim showed up at a different hospital.
That's when officers told Poe he would need to come with them to a squad car for questioning.
"We have reasonable suspicion that a crime has been committed," an officer can be heard saying to Poe.
"To me?" Poe says.
"Yes," the officer responds.
"You guys are telling me I shot my friend?" Poe replies.
At around 7:30pm on April 14, 2021, a bullet came through the ceiling of the lounge and struck a man watching basketball on TV.
The second shooting victim, Cameron Lee, initially told hospital staff he was the victim of a drive by shooting. He later admitted under questioning by detectives that he was in the apartment above the lounge when his gun accidentally discharged and struck his own leg, before continuing through the floor into the lounge below. Instead of staying to explain what happened to police, Lee (later convicted of causing injury by negligent use of a weapon) jumped from a second floor balcony, ditched the gun, and ran.
According to an internal affairs report, Lee's initial statement led to confusion that prompted officers to briefly suspect Poe may have been lying to them about what happened. Officers insisted that Poe accompany them to a squad car for questioning. He refused. Eventually, five officers surrounded Poe, lifted him up from a seated position, tackled him to the ground and handcuffed him.
Within minutes, officers discovered Poe was, in fact, telling the truth. They released him without any charges or citations.
A FOX6 Investigators report that has since received more than 1.5 million online views found the officers and supervisors involved made no mention of their use of force in any police reports.
"It's being swept under the rug," Poe said.
Because of the FOX6 investigation, Milwaukee Police opened their own internal investigation.
According to an internal affairs report completed in June, one officer involved told investigators his supervisor, Sergeant Chance Bamba, indicated that Poe "fell to the ground." Another officer allegedly heard Sergeant Bamba say he did not want to file a use of force report before he retired.
However, internal affairs found no violation of policy or law was committed by any of the officers or supervisors involved.
Poe said his lawsuit aims to hold police "accountable" for misconduct.
"If it can happen to me," he said, "it can happen to anyone."
Milwaukee Police declined to comment on the lawsuit.