John Chisholm On the Hot Seat
DA addresses police-community relations, death penalty, other questions in Q&A at MATC.
“You can’t play games. You can’t play politics with this job.”
Chisholm, an elected official, has been at the helm of the county DA’s office since 2007.
Throughout his interactive discussion with MATC students and other interested persons, Chisholm touched on such hot-button issues as police-community relations, incarceration and the death penalty.
Milwaukee is part of a peer group of urban cities grappling with sometimes strained relations between the sworn police force and its residents — particularly in minority communities.
Several of the hundred-plus persons attending Chisholm’s talk expressed frustration with perceived racial profiling and complained that officers are not charged with the same punitive measures as other persons.
“Police officers are human beings, just like anybody else,” Chisholm said, in response. “When they do something that is criminal, I prosecute them, just like anybody else.”
But Chisholm also furthered his blanket statement by pointing to some of the challenges of charging officers — particularly when weapons are drawn while out on the job.
For his part, Chisholm acknowledged the strained relations are indeed a legitimate issue in Milwaukee. But he also implored the audience to be a part of the solution.
“If you want to see change, you have to be a part of it,” Chisholm said, imploring attendees — if they can make the time — to be an active part of civic life. He mentioned neighborhood block watches as one example.
He also encouraged residents to take advantage of citizens’ police academies, offered in Milwaukee and many other county-based suburban communities.
“Knowledge is power,” Chisholm said of the academies. “You will have a much greater understanding (of department protocol).”
Broadly speaking, Chisholm took aim at what he believed is an over-reliance of incarceration as a one-size-fits-all approach toward addressing crime. He said he has tried being an agent of change by turning current thinking on its head.
“Part of the problem we have right now is the criminal justice system can be very dehumanizing,” Chisholm said. “We have to change that. It’s got nothing to do with being soft on crime. I want to see functioning communities. I want to see safer communities.”
On the topic of the death penalty, Chisholm said he believes Wisconsin’s long-standing prohibition of it should remain on the books. Save for one year, early in its statehood, Wisconsin never has used death as a form of criminal punishment.
By refraining from the death penalty, Chisholm said, “I think it demonstrates a more consistent approach toward valuing human life.”
Chisholm also addressed how technology has changed the nature of his job — for good and bad. The end result, he said, has meant more time spent on individual cases and processing evidence that never would have entered the equation in the past.
When he first joined the office in 1994 as a misdemeanor prosecutor under then-District Attorney E. Michael McCann, Chisholm said 60 to 100 cases could be processed in any given day.
Fast-forward nearly a quarter century later, and the scenario has grown far more complex, Chisholm said.
Officers have squad cams and dash cams, which are reviewed in a number of cases, he said. GPS data, surveillance video and cell phone recordings are other tools that were not as robust a few decades ago.
“It’s changed dramatically,” Chisholm said of the way his office has conducted business in recent times.