Rebuilding community trust is top priority for new Tosa police chief MacGillis

By: - July 15, 2021 6:30 am
James MacGillis, Wauwatosa's new chief of police. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

James MacGillis, Wauwatosa’s new chief of police. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

On July 26, the Wauwatosa Police Department (WPD) will officially welcome its new chief of police, James MacGillis. Until then, an optimistic MacGillis has focused on breaking the ice not only within the department, but also in the community. “I’m not the chief yet,” MacGillis told Wisconsin Examiner, “but in the coming weeks I’m not waiting. I’m already starting to establish relationships.”

By meeting community leaders both in and out of government, MacGillis aims to set the stage for “problem solving within the department.” Envisioning WPD’s future, the new chief says, “There has to be trust built. Not just in the department, that’s critical, but also out in the community.”

MacGillis grew up in Wauwatosa and went to high school there. He has lived on both the east side near Milwaukee and the more suburban west end. Even though he’s from the community, MacGillis knows he must build trust not only with the community, but also with long-time police department staff who may view him with suspicion. He understands repairing bridges between the department and the community won’t happen overnight. For over 30 years the tone of those relationships were set by his predecessor, Barry Weber. Under Weber criticism of WPD’s tactics often fell on deaf ears.

auwatosa police squad. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
A Wauwatosa police squad. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

Weber took over WPD in 1990 amidst investigations into officers who held derogatory Martin Luther King day parties. Over the decades-long Weber era, the department’s reputation for racial profiling persisted. Meanwhile, Weber remained resistant to attempts by city officials to increase oversight of the department’s activities.

Moving past the shadow of the Weber era is something that MacGillis appears ready to do. “There’s a lot of challenges,” said MacGillis, “but I look at them as opportunities. Really, I do.” He emphasized that, “I’m a firm believer in knowing your history, whatever that history may be. Good, bad, it’s still your story. That also informs me, and informs the department, on how we can take steps to really focus on public safety and focus on efficiency, and be effective in policing. Not just on the law enforcement side, but also policing in general. There’s a difference between the two.”

Wauwatosa Police Chief Barry Weber. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
Former Wauwatosa Police Chief Barry Weber in 2020. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

“Policing is utilizing those tools along with other tactics, other strategies, to really focus on public safety,” explained MacGillis. “And again, public safety is a shared responsibility. It involves the community, the community informing us on what are we doing well. What are we not doing that well? How can we make this better? Those are the people we’re out there to serve, to keep the public safe.”

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For MacGillis, who retired from the Milwaukee Police Department as a captain and worked in High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) operations, policing goes beyond the number of arrests made, or tickets written. After retiring from Milwaukee’s drug intelligence office, MacGillis had an opportunity to work separately with public health professionals. He recalls, “As a team we collaborated on bringing law enforcement, public health, and EMS together. It’s a whole new perspective on how we police.” He emphasized that “officers can’t be everything to everybody all the time.”

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Echoing calls from activists and also voices in law enforcement who argue that police shouldn’t handle some matters, MacGillis declares, “There’s more than one way to problem-solve.” By using both city and department resources more dynamically, MacGillis feels, “We can help people with homelessness. We can help people with substance use disorder. We can help people with mental health issues, and their struggles. Get to a point of keeping them out of the criminal justice system. So, people see challenge? I see opportunity.”

In attempting to achieve a balance, unfortunate things can happen along the way. “There may be misunderstandings,” he confessed, “there may be things that are not pretty about either our history, or whether it’s crowd management, or using force, and that’s only one component of what we do. We are people, we are human beings, the community is comprised of human beings, and that’s what we need to focus on. Developing that common ground.”

Over-coming “Us vs Them”

Particularly as the protests of 2020 began in Wauwatosa, the department’s tactics came increasingly into question. Recently, it came to light that a list of protesters, elected officials, lawyers and at least one journalist had been created by the department, and shared with the FBI. Detectives in WPD’s Special Operations Group also created a separate list of “higher value targets,” which included the city’s mayor. The same unit is also linked to the seizure of phones belonging to particular protesters, and low-key cooperation with various federal agencies in protest investigations. As these activities played out internally, the department’s union made a very public stand against local officials who supported police reform and demands from protesters.

When it comes to the list, MacGillis says, “To me that’s indicative of misunderstanding and maybe some communication gaps.” While it’s difficult for the incoming chief to speak to what the department was up to in the past, MacGillis does have ample experience in intelligence gathering through his time at Milwaukee PD.

Capt. James MacGillis (Photo | City of Wauwatosa)
Capt. James MacGillis (Photo | City of Wauwatosa)

“I can tell you in my experience, information is developed into reports that are shared amongst other law enforcement professionals,” he says. “Not for nefarious reasons, but to be used to keep everybody safe. Sometimes that information is fragmented, it’s not complete. But it gives everybody involved a pretty good picture of who’s going to be out there.” Still, intelligence reports are something that MacGillis says he’ll be looking into once he starts. “I know it’s a community concern,” said MacGillis. “But really at the heart of what you’re talking about is empathy. It’s being able to look at what we do as a police agency and as a profession from the community’s eyes.”

After retiring in January, MacGillis says he’s had time to reflect on some of the community’s perspective on how police are viewed. “The community sees us a certain way … we got to figure that out,” he says. “Because sometimes, we’re not seeing things the same way and we need to have that conversation. We’re not always going to agree. Again, our primary mission is public safety, delivering a police service effectively and efficiently. So that’s where we got to find that common ground.”

Protesters gather in front of the Wauwatosa Police Department. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
Protesters gather in front of the Wauwatosa Police Department during the summer of 2020. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

With his first day drawing near, MacGillis says he’ll continue taking steps to build relationships and trust. As he begins meeting some of the department’s staff and supervisors, he is shaping a vision for what the department’s next steps must be. “If I had to nail it down to one thing that I’m going to do right away,” MacGillis told Wisconsin Examiner, “it’s that I want to re-humanize the men and women, the officers who work in this department. Also re-humanizing the community that we serve. It’s not ‘us and them,’ it’s ‘we.’”

He added, “bridging that gap between police and community relations is first and foremost. And I want our community to see not me as a chief but the person that I am, and see those officers as the people that they are. And conversely, we need to see the community that way as well. We all have a story, we all have experiences, and we can learn from one another.”

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Isiah Holmes
Isiah Holmes

Isiah Holmes is a journalist and videographer, and a lifelong resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Holmes' video work dates back to his high school days at Wauwatosa East High, when he made a documentary about the local police department. Since then, his writing has been featured in Urban Milwaukee, Isthmus, Milwaukee Stories, Milwaukee Neighborhood News Services, Pontiac Tribune, and other outlets.

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