Invisible No More

Photos by Adam Ryan Morris Aug. 24 was a picture-perfect Milwaukee Friday. The sun was out, temps were in the mid-80s, and the rain stayed away. But for Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm, a shadow would soon be cast. Across the concrete plaza that stretches from the County Safety Building housing Chisholm’s office to the Milwaukee County Courthouse, a Circuit Court jury of 12 men and women were hearing the political corruption case against former Milwaukee County Board member Johnny Thomas. After deliberating for less than 90 minutes, they returned their verdict. Not guilty. An hour later, Chisholm was…

Photos by Adam Ryan Morris

Aug. 24 was a picture-perfect Milwaukee Friday. The sun was out, temps were in the mid-80s, and the rain stayed away. But for Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm, a shadow would soon be cast.

Across the concrete plaza that stretches from the County Safety Building housing Chisholm’s office to the Milwaukee County Courthouse, a Circuit Court jury of 12 men and women were hearing the political corruption case against former Milwaukee County Board member Johnny Thomas. After deliberating for less than 90 minutes, they returned their verdict.

Not guilty.

An hour later, Chisholm was remarkably calm, even matter-of-fact.

“I just got my butt handed to me,” he said, a wry half-smile playing about his lips.

The sangfroid of the moment was pure John Chisholm. No grousing about the jurors. No railing at the defense lawyer. Indeed, just after getting the verdict, he had telephoned Thomas’ attorney, Craig Mastantuono, with congratulations. And no second-guessing his decision to bring the shocking bribery charges against Thomas in the first place.

It fits the low-key, stoic style that Chisholm has brought to the job since he was first elected Milwaukee County DA in 2006. Although re-elected in November without opposition, Chisholm has been the least-visible of Milwaukee’s top elected officials. Now, he’s turned into the still, quiet eye in the center of a series of gathering storms. He’ll need that cool, calm, even wooden demeanor like never before.

There was the Thomas case and its deflating outcome. But that’s little more than a footnote. In September, Chisholm went before reporters with Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn and took the rare step of asking an outside prosecutor to take a second look at the July 2011 death of Derek Williams, a burglary suspect. Williams died in the back of a squad car from an apparent sickle cell crisis, gasping for breath.


Hear more about this story on WUWM’s “Lake Effect” Feb. 18 at 10 a.m.

Then, only a few weeks later, Chisholm and the police chief once again stood in the glare of TV lights – this time announcing the misconduct arrests of four police officers accused of illegal strip searches and rectal probes of criminal suspects. On that Oct. 9 day, the district attorney’s face was stony, his eyes so deeply set in his skull, he looked almost cadaverous. His voice was stony, too, as he summarized, with little trace of emotion and an almost bone-dry precision, the decisions his office had made in choosing how to frame the case.

“We took complaints from dozens and dozens of people and followed up on each and every one of those,” the DA said. “The charges that are reflected in the complaint today are the strongest evidentiary charges that we want to present right now.”

But one investigation has shone the brightest media spotlight on Chisholm. For more than two years, prosecutors under Chisholm’s command have been combing through Gov. Scott Walker’s tenure as Milwaukee County executive in a wide-ranging secret John Doe investigation. The probe has already produced criminal charges against six people, convictions of five, and incarcerations for two, with more expected.

Yet, in cases where the spotlight shines brightest, reality has sometimes been deeply distorted. Like so much else in these times of intense political polarization, the Walker investigation has spawned images of two fundamentally different universes.

On the left, Walker’s critics gleefully predict the governor’s downfall any day now. On the right, his champions point out that he’s not been charged with any crimes. Walker has stated publicly that he’s been told the investigation is not targeting him – a claim his opponents are unwilling to believe. For all the bravado of the governor’s critics, his allies are just as confident he will not merely survive, but thrive.

Conservative Republicans who back the governor, from talk-radio hosts to self-styled media watchdogs, have positioned the entire criminal probe as nothing more than naked politics. Chisholm, they note darkly, is a Democrat; the investigation, they insist, is nothing more than a partisan witch hunt, with Chisholm carrying water, in the words of Conservative Digest publisher Bob Dohnal, “to help his buddy Tom Barrett.”

Dohnal made the confident assertion last spring, not long before Milwaukee’s mayor lost to Walker a second time. That June recall election capped the long, fruitless campaign to oust the governor. But there are two problems with perceptions like Dohnal’s.

The first and most obvious is that the vote came and went without charges against the governor, despite the dire predictions of Walker’s supporters.

But that’s no surprise to the people who have known and worked with Chisholm over the last two decades. Because, more fundamentally, the other problem with the right’s Machiavellian caricature is that none of Chisholm’s large network of supporters see anything like him in it.

What they see instead is a relentlessly earnest and nonpartisan public official, regardless of his party label. Not a conniving prosecutor willing to indict the proverbial ham sandwich, but a sober student of history who wants to see law enforcement pay as much attention to prevention as to prosecution.

Chisholm shrugs off the attacks of Walker’s cheerleaders as the work of “propagandists.” “I don’t make decisions on whether a person’s a Democrat or a Republican or an independent,” he says. “I make decisions on whether I can prove a case beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Now, as the DA’s visibility rises, his viability, credibility and long-term survival will depend upon whether the independence he’s been praised for holds up in the media glare.

John Chisholm embodies unexpected contrasts.

The Milwaukee County prosecutor is at once a quiet man and a restless one, and he appears to have been so his whole life. A child of relative privilege, he detoured from what could have been a lucrative medical career into the least-glamorous branch of military service: the Army. At 6 feet, 6 inches tall, Chisholm has the long, lean frame of a basketball player. He played on two championship high school hoops teams, but in sports, his greatest love was football, playing tackle at Marquette University High School. (“I had about 40 more pounds on me back then.”) Later, after attaining a black belt in taekwondo, he was known to work out even when injured; yet a law school classmate recalls him foremost as “a gentle giant.”

Mentored by Milwaukee County’s longest-serving DA, E. Michael McCann, Chisholm counts among his friends and professional allies defense lawyers and social workers as well as prosecutors. As a politician, his admirers see him as a role model for effective, responsible and responsive public service who could teach state lawmakers how to get beyond caustic partisan warfare. Yet he shows no inclination to seek higher office.

“I think most politicians aren’t actually interested in actually solving problems – they don’t want to get their hands dirty,” says Gary Mueller, who operates pro-bono advertising firm Serve Marketing and enlisted Chisholm a few years ago to help with a series of anti-violence campaigns. “He looks at the root cause of problems and tries to get ahead of them.”

Mimi Carter of the National Institute of Corrections works with the Milwaukee County DA’s office, which uses a grant from her agency to study “evidence-based decision-making” in the criminal justice system.

“John is a person who is vision-driven, collaborative and progressive,” Carter says. “He works exceptionally well with his justice system partners and stakeholders to understand the needs of the Milwaukee County community and strategize how best to achieve them. He is not afraid to explore innovative approaches if they offer the promise of more effective outcomes.”

Leaning forward at a conference table in his office, Chisholm describes the approach.

“We have an obligation to be more than just case processors,” he says. “We’re not just an assembly line that takes problems that occur out in the community, then funnels people into a system, and then just keeps moving them along like a conveyor belt.”

Too often, he says, the conveyor belt leads to jail or prison, back to freedom, and then right back to a cell again.

“The role of a prosecutor is evolving,” he continues. “More and more prosecutors are beginning to understand that their role now is one of being directly engaged with the community and helping the community solve problems. To do that means you have to step outside the traditional boundaries of the courthouse and understand that the reasons people come into our system are multifaceted – and they generally have to be addressed in a comprehensive way.”

Chisholm has taken such an expansive view of the role his office can play in reducing crime that he’s reached out to groups well outside the criminal justice system.

“I don’t think he views his job solely as prosecuting people and putting them in jail,” says Dan Bader, president of the Helen Bader Foundation. “I think he views his job as, ‘How do I help people live a productive life, given the tools that I have?’”

Former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Janine Geske says Chisholm is a collaborative leader who has become a national role model in his field. “He’s the epitome of good government,” says Geske, now at Marquette University. “He’s very present throughout the community, but he doesn’t try to grab headlines or promote himself.”

For Chisholm, the numbers act as proof that the approach is working – reduced domestic violence homicides, a homicide conviction rate of about 98 percent and reduced incarceration. “We’ve got 3,000 fewer people in the Wisconsin prison system from Milwaukee than we had five or six years ago,” he says. “That’s a success story because the violent crime rate hasn’t exploded.”

Yet those success stories don’t get as much attention.

“There’s a narrative of progress that needs to be talked about in this city that people are reluctant to talk about sometimes,” Chisholm says. “I don’t understand that.”


For the first several years of his tenure, Chisholm worked largely under the radar. The flurry of recent attention has changed that. But it hasn’t changed Chisholm’s style.

Take, for example, the Walker investigation. Since the probe’s launch back in May 2010, five aides or associates of the governor and former Milwaukee County executive have pleaded guilty or been convicted of various crimes: illegal campaign contributions, embezzlement from a veterans’ fund, doing political work on county time. Sentences have ranged from probation to two years in prison. Along the way, court hearings revealed a secret computer network in the county offices that Walker’s county staff used to raise campaign funds for Walker and then-state Rep. Brett Davis, who sought the lieutenant governor’s seat in 2010. And at the November sentencing of former Walker aide Kelly Rindfleisch, prosecutor Bruce Landgraf unveiled emails that indicated operatives running Walker’s campaign for governor were directly influencing the policies coming out of the county executive’s office. 

As these details have surfaced, Chisholm and his staff have been circumspect in discussing them, despite accusations of leaks from the DA’s office. The details that have come out have been presented in open court or entered in the public record. Prosecutors have been tight-lipped otherwise.

Or consider the aftermath of the Johnny Thomas case. Chisholm’s December 2011 move to charge Thomas with accepting a bribe from a potential county contractor – in what was really an undercover sting operation – cut short Thomas’ Milwaukee city comptroller campaign. The charge astounded the community. The Thomas acquittal was, in its own way, just as breathtaking. Yet despite the Thomas loss, Chisholm isn’t second-guessing his decision to bring the case.

He also firmly rejects speculation that his aggressive pursuit of the Walker investigation forced him to move forward against Thomas, a Democrat, to avoid accusations of a partisan fix. Instead, he says, he relied solely on the facts that surfaced in the investigation – and notes that not all of them made it to the courtroom. And the DA responds to these questions matter-of-factly, without becoming defensive.

He has shown a similar spirit when confronted with the Milwaukee County Medical Examiner’s office ruling that Derek Williams’ death in the back of a police car was a homicide. Earlier, Chisholm had followed the ME’s ruling that the death was due to natural causes. With that now called into question, he decided it would be improper to take the question up again himself because his earlier conclusions could taint the findings. So he asked retired Judge John Franke to sign on as a special prosecutor and conduct a new, independent investigation.

The recent allegations of police misconduct in the strip-search case presented Chisholm with a different dilemma. Eager to make sure that the investigation proceeded without risking the appearance of a prosecution or police cover-up, prosecutors arranged interviews with the alleged victims at the DA’s office rather than the police station. Additionally, every person who complained – regardless of criminal record – was taken seriously and treated respectfully in the investigation, Chisholm says.

In each of these situations, Chisholm and his office have been spared serious criticism, though as the Williams story unfolded, a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel piece took the DA to task for scaling back death inquests in contrast to his predecessor. Still, it’s perhaps a measure of how much credibility and personal capital Chisholm has earned throughout the community that he’s yet to find himself in the crosshairs of too many angry colleagues (Sheriff David Clarke being one notable detractor). Or, for that matter, angry voters.

Criticism, however, did come in 2010 over his expanded deferred prosecution program. The Journal Sentinel published a story by Watchdog team members Ben Poston and Dan Bice on instances in which offenders who were enrolled in the deferred program went on to commit more – and more serious – crimes. They also found some participants whose original crimes appeared to fall short of the standard for the program: a few violent or even repeat offenders.

“The series was intended to provide public accountability for an increasingly popular program by investigating specific cases that may have been resolved in a manner that ran counter to state law or the guidelines drafted by District Attorney John Chisholm and his staff,” Bice says. He notes that the piece included a 10-paragraph passage quoting Chisholm and Deputy DA Jeff Altenburg’s defense of the program’s success.

Still, the prosecutor’s supporters say the newspaper investigation cherry-picked cases that were exceptions in an otherwise effective program. “I thought it was unfair,” says Jeffrey Kremers, Milwaukee County Circuit Court’s chief judge. “From the data that I have seen, John and the courts are making very good decisions about who should get the benefit of that kind of opportunity and who should not.” Chisholm, Kremers says, “has been visionary in his use of early-intervention strategies to deal with small problems and low-risk individuals before they become high-risk individuals and big problems.”

Chisholm’s quiet restlessness may be the one constant on the circuitous path that has led him where he is today.

Born at Milwaukee’s St. Joseph Hospital in 1963 to Dr. Donald Chisholm and his wife, Sandra – a nursing student at Marquette University when the couple met – John grew up thinking he would go into medicine, too. The Chisholms raised their eight children (seven born to the couple, one adopted) in Menomonee Falls and then Elm Grove. Solid Catholics, they put most of their kids through parochial schools.

John Chisholm got his diploma from Marquette University High School, spent two years at St. John’s University in Minnesota, then came back home to transfer to Marquette University. He enrolled as pre-med, majoring in English literature with a minor in chemistry.

For as long as anyone could remember, he was going to take up the trade of his father: a general practice doctor turned ophthalmologist who once joked that he had so many patients, they would fill the stands at Lambeau Field.

Then came John’s medical college admission test – the MCAT. As Chisholm put the final pencil marks on the exam paper, “it hit me.” The future, once so cheerfully inevitable, turned leaden. “I thought to myself, ‘OK, you’re going to be going to medical school,’” Chisholm says. Four more years in classrooms. Another four years – maybe even more – of internship and residency. The very certainty of what lay ahead turned from comforting to a prison from which he suddenly yearned to break free. “I wanted to do something right then.”

On a whim, the 21-year-old walked over to the Marquette Field House, where the university’s Army Reserve Officer Training Corps had its office. “It was a time of great uncertainty,” Chisholm says. “I felt I had something to offer. I had no deep understanding of what military service was like. I wanted that experience.”

The ROTC captain told him he was too late, as a junior, to enter the program but suggested he audit military classes and apply to the Army’s Officer Candidate School after graduation. He did and now calls OCS, when it comes to leadership studies, “better than any course you will ever take at the Harvard Business School.” Commissioned as a lieutenant, he was assigned to the infantry and eventually sent to the Korean peninsula to patrol the demilitarized zone between South and North.

When the Berlin Wall fell and the Cold War ended, the military reduced ranks and Chisholm decided against re-enlisting. He considered returning to medicine but decided to try law school at the suggestion of a sister who’s also in the field. He enrolled in the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Law School in the fall of 1991. But he almost didn’t stay.

“I had a tough time that first semester,” Chisholm says. He was older than many of his classmates and had just married that August. His wife, Colleen, took a job at an
elementary school in nearby Verona. The days she spent teaching, he sat in lecture halls.

“In the Army, you’re given a lot of discretion, you’re given a lot of control, and you have a very focused mission,” he says. “Now I’m back in the purely academic setting – it struck me as all theoretical and abstract. I wanted to get back to doing something.”

But what? He asked Walter Dickey, his first-semester criminal law professor. “He told me he was thinking about becoming an FBI agent,” Dickey says. “I told him, ‘Forget that.’ He should become a prosecutor.”

Dickey’s class was a huge lecture divided into smaller groups of a dozen or so students, each directed by an assistant faculty member. Michele LaVigne was in charge of Chisholm’s criminal law small group. “John had the most remarkable sense of how things really are,” she says. “He saw underneath the written word in the case law. He really understood human beings.” In class, “He was always the source of, ‘Wait a minute – can’t we look at it this way? In real life, doesn’t it really work this way?’ That was so refreshing.”

With her encouragement, he enrolled in a summer clinical program providing legal help to prisoners. His clients were maximum-security inmates at Waupun Correctional Institution. “I just jumped into it with both feet,” Chisholm says. “I absolutely loved the experience. I spent more time on that clinical program than I spent on my classes themselves.”

A fellow student in the clinical program, Miles Lindner, entered law school straight out of college and was several years younger than Chisholm, but they had in common that they were Marquette High grads. “He was a guy I looked up to,” says Lindner, now a personal injury attorney in Milwaukee. “A guy who took me under his wing.”

Their prison clients mostly needed routine legal representation with child-support actions, divorce cases and the like. Chisholm also handled a couple of criminal case appeals for inmates. In one such case, the appeals court published the decision – a sign that the justices found it important enough to set a legal precedent. “He was a lot more diligent than I was,” Lindner says. “He’s got tremendous conviction, will and passion.”

Chisholm’s athletic background stoked a quiet but fierce competitive streak. Yet that competitive ember was well-hidden. More visible was “a caring, kind-hearted guy who would lend a helping hand at any time,” Lindner says. “He’s a gentle giant – and yet, obviously, one tough S.O.B.”

Although he’d enjoyed some success in class, Chisholm still was unclear on a postgraduation direction. Then one day, a guest speaker came to class: Milwaukee County DA E. Michael McCann.

The summer right before classes began saw the arrest of notorious Milwaukee serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, who murdered 17 young men and engaged in ritual cannibalism with their remains. McCann’s office was preparing Dahmer’s prosecution. The law students, Chisholm included, were primed for an hour of war stories about the case in all its grisly and garish detail.

“He never said a word about the Dahmer case,” Chisholm recalls in a tone that suggests appreciation rather than disappointment. “He talked about the role of a prosecutor in creating a more just community, the special obligation that judges had, and the critical role of the defense attorney – in an admiring and respectful way.

“He wasn’t making a pitch, ‘I want you all to become prosecutors.’ He was saying, ‘I want you to become lawyers that are concerned about justice.’”

At last, Chisholm knew what he could do with a law degree.


In John’s second summer of law school, the Chisholms decamped to Rhinelander, where John took a paid internship in the Oneida County District Attorney’s Office. After working under then-DA Patrick O’Melia, handling everything from traffic cases to jury trials, “I knew I wanted to be a prosecutor.”

He applied to every DA’s office in the state, and when a deputy prosecutor from Milwaukee County – his first choice – interviewed him, he turned to his defense law mentor, Michele LaVigne, for a recommendation.

“The DA’s office was a perfect fit for him,” LaVigne says. “He is everything that you want in a prosecutor. He understood the complexities of the human beings involved – that defendants aren’t cardboard, that victims aren’t cardboard, that communities aren’t statistics.”

Going to work at the Milwaukee County DA’s Office right after graduation in 1994 was like trying to take a drink from a fire hose. Crime had started rising in the late 1980s and was at its peak; the rookie would walk into court with more than a hundred case files on a given day. “You just started plowing through them,” Chisholm says. “You were surrounded by 10 cops, 10 witnesses, 10 defense attorneys and 10 defendants, and you were doing triage – literally. My first year, I did in excess of 25 jury trials. It was an incredibly high volume of work.”

Kelli Thompson was just starting in the Milwaukee County branch of the State Public Defender’s Office back then. “John was a good assistant prosecutor to go up against,” she says. “He always knew the facts very well. He wouldn’t necessarily give me what I would want as a deal. But he was always ready to listen, always respectful of my clients.”

Thompson, daughter of four-term Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson, has risen to become head of the State Public Defender’s Office. She adds: “John’s someone you can disagree with without being disagreeable.”

Chisholm graduated to felony drug prosecutions and then was made a supervisor. In 1999, McCann tapped him to lead a new unit to prosecute gun crime. The goal was to bring down the number of homicides in the city – still more than 100 a year, after having peaked at 168 in 1991. The gun unit, as it was quickly termed, worked with the U.S. attorney’s office and city police on a stream of high-profile cases that went to federal court. They locked up Jamaican drug dealers, Latin Kings gang members and the infamous Michael Lock, the preacher, drug dealer, pimp, mortgage fraudster and killer now serving life in prison after a series of federal convictions.

In 2005, McCann, having served for nearly four decades as DA, announced he would not run for another two-year term. Chisholm and colleagues wondered what would happen next. Co-workers feared an outsider might “politicize the place” and urged Chisholm to consider running. Still, that step “was very difficult,” he says. Except for helping a buddy with a leaflet drop for McCann in high school, Chisholm had no experience in politics – and no political aspiration. When he asked his wife, he remembers her saying, “You already work seven days a week. If you really believe this strongly in it, you should try to implement the things you believe in.”

He decided to run. Given Milwaukee’s heavily Democratic cast, it’s unsurprising that apolitical Chisholm went with the majority party. But he says it was an appropriate fit on the merits. He was grateful for Democratic Sen. Herb Kohl’s use of Congressional earmarks to steer federal money to the DA’s office. He’d worked with lawmakers in both parties on policy questions but says his priorities – tackling disparities in prosecution, reducing incarceration without compromising safety, strengthening domestic violence laws and prosecution – seemed more aligned with the Democrats.

There was one notable departure: Like McCann, another Catholic, Chisholm firmly opposes abortion. “But I made it pretty clear that my position on life actually informed my commitment to doing this job the right way,” he says. “I was opposed to the death penalty for the same reason, and I also value individual victims for the same reason – regardless of their age, or background, or their prior history.”

Preparing for the race, Chisholm cultivated support across the legal community, including in the defense bar. “That was something I hadn’t seen before,” says Craig Mastantuono, a defense lawyer for some 20 years. “I hadn’t seen prosecutors who felt the need to have outside input.”

He assembled a kitchen cabinet that cut across the legal community and tapped other professionals whose work intersected with the criminal justice system to think through policy stances.

“We used to have these talks all the time about how prosecuting cases was like making sausages – they’d just churn ’em out, but they weren’t reducing crime at all. He’s a real geek when it comes to criminal justice policy,” Mastantuono says. “It was give and take. There were a lot of things that we didn’t agree on and worked through, things we didn’t agree on that we put aside.”

But they also explored areas where they could agree, such as how to better divert first-time offenders from being sent to jail when alternatives might be a better fit.

The 2006 election, Chisholm’s first, marked the only time he’s faced opposition. That year, he beat Democratic primary rival, former Ald. Larraine McNamara-McGraw, by a 2-to-1 margin, and in November, he also bested independent candidate Lew Wasserman, a defense attorney, with about two-thirds of the vote. When Chisholm ran again two years later – this time for a four-year term
instituted by a state constitutional amendment – and again in November 2012, he had no challengers.

Not long after Chisholm took office, he sought out Dan Bader, among others, to talk strategy. “It was certainly proactive on his part,” Bader says.

What continues to stand out about Chisholm is “his understanding that no one entity can really root out crime,” says Carmen Pitre, co-executive director for the Sojourner Family Peace Center, an agency that helps victims of domestic violence. “It’s really a partnership, and John embodies that spirit of partnership.”  

Once upon a time, the prosecutor’s job seemed to have a simple mission: Catch the bad guys, convict them in court, and put them away.

The flaw in that theory, Chisholm says, is that it’s basically inefficient. The people who wind up in court on the wrong side of the law aren’t all the same. They belong to two completely different groups.

There are the hard-core criminals. Robbers. Rapists. Gunmen. Killers. “The people who scare us,” Chisholm says. “I don’t need to know a whole lot about that person to know they’re going to have to be prosecuted aggressively.” But Chisholm says that’s no more than 20 percent of the caseload.

Then there’s the rest: “The people who habitually irritate us,” he says. “The other 75 to 80 percent of our caseload, people that are oftentimes mentally ill, drug-addicted, alcohol-addicted, youthful offenders, and people just making really bad, short-term decisions that result in repeated contacts with law enforcement.”

It’s not that you don’t prosecute them, Chisholm says, but if they’re prosecuted with no regard to their individual circumstances, they develop extensive records and become unemployable.

“The system’s really been designed to treat every individual as a discrete incident and not look at it from the big picture, from a more holistic standpoint of why is this person here, and what could have been done to prevent them from coming into this system in the first place?”

By taking a close look, Chisholm says, it becomes clear that defendants and victims are often connected. “Crime tends to be concentrated, not just in the same geographic areas, but the same related groups of individuals. The vast majority of resources are really spent on a relatively small group of people. That’s both the challenge and, I would argue, also the hope of taking different approaches to solving crime.”

So the prosecutor’s job becomes a lot more complex. It’s not just about locking up bad guys, Chisholm says. It’s about reducing crime and improving communities.

Chisholm’s experience in the gun unit led him to that realization. “I quickly realized that it wasn’t going to be done just by cops and county prosecutors and courts.”

Enter Dr. Stephen Hargarten – an emergency room physician who founded the Firearms Injury Center at the Medical College of Wisconsin with a federal grant in the 1990s. Hargarten and colleagues collected gun-
related injury data as public health specialists, and mined law enforcement and hospital reports for larger trends and patterns. And he pushed back against conventional wisdom.

Take gun “buy-back” programs – bounties the city offered in the ’90s for every firearm turned in, intended to get weapons off the street.

“When we looked at the kinds of guns being collected, compared with the kind of guns being linked to homicides and suicides, there was no linkage,” Hargarten says. Buy-back programs harvested cheap, small-caliber weapons, often long unused – and did little to reduce the weapons of choice on the street. “It’s not the .22-caliber revolver” that criminals are using to maim and kill, the doctor says. “It’s the 9 mm automatic pistol – those are the ones you should be going after.”

As a deputy DA, Chisholm joined the injury center’s advisory committee and adopted Hargarten’s broader, systemic analysis: “We were going to have to do more than just identify the bad guys and pull them off the street,” the prosecutor says.

“It was certainly refreshing,” Hargarten says. Chisholm “is the kind of guy who’s open to these kind of things. He’s open to a broader approach.”

It’s an approach Chisholm has gone full-bore on since becoming DA. It’s also very much in sync with Police Chief Ed Flynn’s mission: getting closer to the street level where crime is occurring, getting to know the people who live in those neighborhoods and analyzing data to help crime-prevention strategies. “It’s very helpful to have trained assistant DAs who have learned to speak community-policing language and who can translate it for prosecuting DAs,” Flynn says. “John is a nice combination of youth, enthusiasm and a willingness to try new things.”

New things have included being more willing to expand deferred prosecution and following through on those pre-election chat sessions. Deferred prosecution entails giving first-time offenders in nonviolent crimes an opportunity to cleanse their records if they are willing to be held accountable through other means. That may include undergoing addiction treatment, making restitution to victims or providing community service.

Chisholm has also expanded a program, one started under McCann, that assigns community prosecutors to work directly out of district police stations, where they get to know both the particular crime problems and the personalities – good and bad – in the community. He’s taken the basic idea further, assigning two prosecutors to work full time in the Milwaukee Public Schools.

The MPS prosecutors, Chisholm says, aren’t for routine prosecution of crimes in schools. Their job is to head off the behaviors that could lead to those crimes – from truancy to bullying to violence or drug use – behavior that “creates an environment where kids don’t want to be there,” he says. “If you look at it only as, that’s an MPS administrator’s problem, or the police problem, or the parent’s problem… No. It’s everybody’s
problem, and it’s the kids’ problem themselves.”

The school prosecutors sort which incidents merit full-blown prosecution and which can be handled through other means. They meet with staff and students, teaching them about restorative justice – the concept of those who did wrong making things right for the victim instead of simply being punished.

“The end result is not to exclude the kid from school,” Chisholm says. “The end result is to restore the victim to where they were before, hold the offender accountable, and to have the other students engage in that process as well and act as facilitators for that.”

How stable are our neighborhoods? Are we reducing violent crime? Are we sustaining civic institutions that enhance the daily life of the people who are living there? Those are Chisholm’s questions. And the answers serve as a sort of performance evaluation for the prosecutor.

“If you measure your success by the number of convictions, you’re not addressing the problems of the community itself,” he says.

None of this, he emphasizes, means shirking from cracking down on the hard-core people. And it doesn’t mean letting the rest off the hook.

“The people who scare us, let’s get them off the street and keep them off the street. The people who irritate us – let’s get them to change their behavior so they don’t victimize more people and chew up more resources.”

But there is one big skeptical voice inside the local criminal justice system, and it belongs to Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke. He dismisses Chisholm’s emphasis on strategies like deferred prosecution as “social engineering experiments,” the product of a naive notion that “career criminals can be turned around by some boondoggle social program.” He says Chisholm has gone soft since his days prosecuting violent drug felons, when Clarke was captain of the Milwaukee Police intelligence division and the MPD’s coordinator for the joint city-state-federal crackdowns on gun crimes.

“I like John Chisholm,” Clarke says. “He was every cop’s dream when it came to charging career criminals in gun cases. But not so much anymore. Now, there’s too much of a reliance on deferred prosecution, alternatives to incarceration or community sanctions. We’re polar opposites now when it comes to how to approach criminal behavior. I see a lot coming out of his office where the prosecutor’s office is acting like a public defender’s office.”

Yet despite such different perspectives, Clarke stops well short of the scathing attacks he’s lobbed at other officials, from Flynn to Milwaukee County Board members. And while highly critical of the Walker probe, the sheriff doesn’t see partisan motives in Chisholm’s pursuit: “John’s a straight-shooter.”

“We don’t have a contentious relationship,” Chisholm says. “I believe that his role is every bit as important as my role. He’s often described his role as, he’s just a cop. He sees things in black and white, right is right, wrong is wrong, and he limits what he thinks his role is to that. I think he’s got a much bigger responsibility than that. He’s obviously a smart guy – he’s gone to more professional schools than can be counted. I think he could have a stronger voice in addressing problems in the community than just criticizing it.”

But Chisholm says Clarke’s right on the money about one point. “I have changed,” the district attorney admits.

Years before he was elected, in his days of leading the gun unit, one of his assistant DAs, Jeff Altenburg, broke the news that he was leaving the unit to become McCann’s first community prosecutor. “I did not react to it well,” Chisholm says, laughing in self-recognition. “I wasn’t gracious about it. I gave the same lines that often get thrown back at me now – ‘What do you want to do social work for?’”

Over time, though, Altenburg convinced him that the new venture would help fulfill the core mission of the prosecutor’s office: reducing crime. Today, Altenburg, now a deputy DA, runs the community prosecution program. And Chisholm has become its unabashed supporter, spearheading expansion with federal grants to cover the entire city and even take in nearby suburbs of West Allis and South Milwaukee.

“That’s the difference between being the assistant DA and the DA,” Chisholm says. As the elected person at the top, “You have an obligation that’s broader than just taking care of your own system.” 



Milwaukee Magazine Contributing Editor Erik Gunn has written for the magazine since 1995. He started covering the media in 2006, writing the award-winning column Pressroom and now its online successor, Pressroom Buzz. Check back regularly for the latest news and commentary of the workings of the news business in Milwaukee and Wisconsin.