Milwaukee DA Chisholm focuses re-election campaign on crime prevention innovations

Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm stands 6’6”, a physical stature that mirrors his outsized role as an innovative prosecutor. But it also mirrors what a large target he’s become as he seeks a fourth term.

Looking to ensure his defeat are two disparate groups: supporters of Republican Gov. Scott Walker and people sympathetic to the Black Lives Matter movement.

Beset from both ends of the political spectrum, Chisholm plans to focus his campaign on his record as the county’s top prosecutor, a record that’s made his office a national model for crime prevention.

Public health approach

Jeffery Toobin of The New Yorker spent three days with Chisholm last year to learn about his “public health” approach to crime prevention. Toobin highlighted Chisholm’s work in a laudatory May 11, 2015, article titled “The Milwaukee Experiment.”

Chisholm posits that every criminal offense represents a missed opportunity to have intervened with the offender. His model of crime prevention is based on identifying individuals and neighborhoods at high risk of generating violent crime and then providing a host of supportive actions and services aimed at stopping that from happening. He describes the system as an “epidemiological”
approach — analogous to the work of experts who study the incidence, distribution and control of diseases. His approach reflects the work of Dr. Mallory O’Brien, herself an epidemiologist and the founding director of the Milwaukee Homicide Review Commission.

This public health approach recognizes that the vast majority of violent crimes in Milwaukee occur in disadvantaged communities beset by what Chisholm calls “layers of adversity that have persisted for decades.” Without exactly saying it, he’s essentially asking, “What did you expect?”

“A shooting isn’t senseless in a neighborhood where everyone you know has been shot at or is carrying a gun and has been exposed to a lot of violence,” Chisholm explains.

It’s not only violence that begets violence, but also a “host of conditions that are often times beyond the control of the people who live there,” he says. Among those conditions, he points to deep, intractable poverty, a poor school system, low access to public health, empty buildings and a lack of grocery stores.

“There’s also physical things, like lead exposure and the quality of housing people are living in,” Chisholm adds. “And the negative consequences of many things in the penal system — fines, tickets and forfeitures — are compounding problems for people who are resource-challenged to begin with.”

Battling ‘toxicity’

Chisholm has responded to the layers of adversity that breed crime by “paying attention to the fundamental things that breed that toxicity.”

For instance, he says, “You could have a mentally ill person who’s disrupting the neighborhood who’s homeless and who’s got a drug addiction. You might work with law enforcement and family to find safe housing for that person and wrap some resources around (him or her).”

Another example is identifying a house that’s been abandoned and become a drug house. In that instance, the detoxifying action might be tearing down the building.

In an area with many blighted buildings, enlisting Habitat for Humanity and other organizations to revitalize the neighborhood can deter crime.

“One of the things we’ve seen is that if you change the look of the neighborhood and you change the feel of the neighborhood, you actually see a reduction in crime from that alone,” Chisholm says.

Assistant DA offices are housed in police stations located in at-risk neighborhoods. There, they work as a team with community organizations, public service providers and nonprofits that address factors that contribute to crime, such as homelessness and domestic abuse.

Chisholm says the “coolest thing we’ve done” is help to create the $21 million Sojourner Family Peace Center, which is modeled in part on the San Diego Family Justice Center. That facility was credited with helping to reduce domestic violence homicides by 95 percent in 15 years.

Opened late last year, the Sojourner Center brings together a wide array of partners, including the DA’s office, Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, Milwaukee Public Schools, Jewish Family Services and the Milwaukee Police Department. Located at 619 W. Walnut St., the 70,000-square-foot center is the largest of around 80 similar facilities that provide shelter, child protection and core health and legal services in one place.

The center allows DAs to intervene when a family’s been exposed to violence, just as epidemiologists would intervene to halt the spread of a disease outbreak.

Reducing crime and incarceration

In addition to the groundbreaking work he’s done in economically challenged communities to prevent crime rather than react to it, Chisholm’s office has a 95 percent conviction rate in homicide cases. He’s established the only dedicated firearms reduction unit in the state — and one of the few in the nation.

Chisholm says that he’s also proud of his success at reducing incarceration rates and arrests for nonviolent drug offenses.

In 2008 and 2009, Milwaukee saw its lowest violent crime rates in 30 years, along with lower rates of other crimes. Chisholm accomplished this while at the same time reducing incarcerations.

Although violent crime crept upward again in 2014 and 2015, Chisholm said it’s significant that he proved it’s possible to decrease crime without locking up massive numbers of people. During his tenure in office, he’s addressed the two issues simultaneously — reducing both crime and incarceration. He says the issues are connected in a way that counters conventional wisdom, and the groundbreaking way he’s addressed the connection is what prosecutors are emulating nationwide.

No good deed goes unpunished

Despite Chisholm’s record of innovation and achievement, groups at both ends of the political spectrum would like to see him defeated in his bid for re-election.

Gunning hardest for Chisholm are the dark money groups he investigated for the case popularly known as John Doe 2. Those groups were charged with illegal coordination of fundraising activities in conjunction with Walker’s recall campaign.

Walker supporters also are steamed about John Doe 1, which looked into the felony misappropriation of county time and resources by Walker’s staff members, who were investigated for helping to run his gubernatorial campaign from the Milwaukee County executive’s office. Many Wisconsin Republicans insist that case was bogus, even though it netted six convictions.

The special interest groups aligned with Walker are armed with a formidable cache of dollars and they’re yearning for vengeance. They’ve been behind efforts to launch a recall campaign against Chisholm.

Walker supporters have lumped the John Doe cases together and dismissed them as a partisan witch-hunt. They’ve said Chisholm was out to get revenge on Walker for curbing teachers’ unions, because Chisholm’s wife is a fourth-grade teacher.

In reality, the decision to prosecute John Doe 2 was made by five DAs, including two Republicans. It was ultimately Fran Schmitz, a Republican and a respected former U.S. district attorney, who took the case to the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

There, justices who’d received millions of dollars from the defendants — but who refused to recuse themselves — ruled retroactively that the law broken by the defendants was unconstitutional. Then they fired Schmitz and ordered him to destroy the evidence.

An appeal of that decision is on the docket of the U.S. Supreme Court.

In addition to the right-wing, dark-money crowd, Chisholm also has angered some people involved in the Black Lives Matter movement. They’re outraged about decisions made by Chisholm’s office not to seek indictments for excessive use of force against unarmed black men.

Chisholm declined to prosecute three men who piled on top of Corey Stingley, an African-American teen, after they caught him trying to steal alcohol from a convenience store in 2012. Stingley died as a direct result of their assault, but Chisholm determined the facts of the case could not support a criminal conviction.

Chisholm also decided not to issue an indictment against MPD officer Christopher Manney, who gunned down Dontre Hamilton, an unarmed black man, in Milwaukee’s Red Arrow Park in April 2014.

Chisholm stands by the Manney decision, saying the law leaves no ambiguities over his ability to prosecute in such scenarios. Witnesses said they saw Hamilton strike Manney with the officer’s baton, an action that qualifies as use of “deadly force” under the law. In such situations, officers are allowed to shoot, regardless of the strongly criticized missteps taken by Manney that precipitated Hamilton’s response.

Manney was fired for those errors.

The Manney decision notwithstanding, Chisholm says he’s not timid about prosecuting police officers, noting he’s charged over 60 in the last 20 years, both as DA and an assistant DA.

Chisholm is stoical about the political repercussions of those cases, saying they go with his position as top county prosecutor.

“No one’s ever going to be happy with a decision like (the Hamilton case),” he says.

Despite the political target on his back, Chisholm’s forward-thinking approach to crime has won him a lot of fans, including officials from law enforcement and unions, as well as elected leaders.

“In 10 years, John Chisholm has led a steady transformation within our criminal justice system,” said state Rep. Evan Goyke, D-Milwaukee, in a prepared endorsement. “District Attorney Chisholm has created specialized teams within his office, and he’s done so without utilizing more tax dollars. This has allowed Milwaukee to establish treatment, alternative, and diversion programs, teams to prosecute domestic violence and sexually motivated crimes, and to place prosecutors in communities throughout Milwaukee to better address neighborhood challenges. Despite these important improvements. … He will continue to fight to make Milwaukee’s criminal justice system more fair and effective for everyone. That is why I am endorsing him for another term.”

On the Web

Learn more about John Chisholm and his Democratic primary challenger Verona Swanigan.