John Chisholm On the Hot Seat

DA addresses police-community relations, death penalty, other questions in Q&A at MATC.

By - Mar 6th, 2018 03:09 pm
John Chisholm. Photo by Dave Fidlin.

John Chisholm. Photo by Dave Fidlin.

“You can’t play games. You can’t play politics with this job.”

So said Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm, wrapping up a two-hour, question-and-answer session about his high profile position at Milwaukee Area Technical College on Monday.

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.

The crux of the difficulty in charging officers involved in shootings, Chisholm said, is this fundamental question: “Was the ‘something they did’ reasonable?”

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.

Categories: Politics, Public Safety

7 thoughts on “John Chisholm On the Hot Seat”

  1. Ted Chisholm says:

    @Dudley Sharp: The idea is that justice is more than retribution. The taking of another’s life, outside of an on-the-spot self-defense scenario, is not only a gross violation of the sanctity of life; it is an aberrant act that contravenes basic social norms. A government that employs the death penalty undermines these norms. Individuals elected to enforce these norms, such as a district attorney, should and (at least in Milwaukee) do understand this.

  2. Dudley Sharp says:


    Sadly, my comment was removed for some unknown reason. Don’t know how you answered it.

    I’ll try, again.

    John Chisholm said, “By refraining from the death penalty, I think it demonstrates a more consistent approach toward valuing human life.”

    That, of course, makes no more sense than:

    “By refraining from incarceration, I think it demonstrates a more consistent approach toward valuing human freedom”, meaning no sense, at all.

    A sanction is only a sanction when we take away that which is cherished, be that time and labor, with community service, money with fines, freedom with incarceration and life with execution.

    Just retribution means the punishment will be proportional to the crime.

    It is the sanctity of innocent life that call s for execution for the murderer who murdered that innocent life, just as it is the sanctity of freedom that requires incarceration.

    Here is a superb review of the 2000 years of death penalty support, within the context of “sanctity of life”:

    By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment (2017), Edward Feser & Joseph Bessette

  3. Dudley Sharp says:

    My hats off to John. Very tough job and I appreciate, very much, what he does..

  4. PMD says:

    The only proper punishment for murder is the state executing the perpetrator? Why don’t more countries practice that then? That sure doesn’t sound superb unless one is desperately searching to justify their blood lust.

  5. Dudley Sharp says:


    That is not a logical conclusion.

    I think execution is a fair, just and proportional sanction for some murders, just as I think fines,, community service and different lengths of incarceration are fair, just and proportional for some crimes, yet I have no “lock them up” lust, nor community service lust, nor fines lust but, instead, an appreciation for sanctions that are just – not too harsh, not too lenient.

  6. Dudley Sharp says:


    I used to be against the death penalty and, very much, understand that position.

    I never stated nor implied nor have ever thought that execution was the only proper sanction for murder. I think it is appropriate that the judge or jury should have the option of choosing life or death in some cases, lesser in others.

    It appears that some governments feel more wise than the majority of their citizens and, as such, have outlawed the death penalty, contrary to their citizens wisdom. Even in Western Europe, the most anti of anti death penalty governments, the majority of their citizens support the death penalty for some criminals, as they did for Saddam Hussein, who, by his conduct, forfeited his right to live, just as many others have forfeited their freedom, money, time and labor or property.

  7. Dudley Sharp says:

    Ted Chisholm:

    All criminal sanctions are based within just and legal retribution, meaning that punishment is just and proportional to the crime – sanctions which are not too harsh and not too lenient.

    That is the goal of the law, the jury and the judges.

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