GOP calls for DA Chisholm to be fired echo legislative debates on Milwaukee

Letter to Evers is the latest Republican reaction to the Waukesha parade tragedy

By: - December 7, 2021 7:45 pm
Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm (Photo courtesy of Milwaukee County)

Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm (Photo courtesy of Milwaukee County)

A group of 14 Republican Wisconsin senators and state representatives are calling for Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm to be removed from office. In a Dec. 6 letter to Gov. Tony Evers, the group of GOP legislators pointed to the Waukesha Christmas Parade, citing the tragedy as just cause to fire Chisholm, who has served as district attorney since 2007.

The letter claims that, “Chisholm has refused to step down after a flood of calls for his resignation. Because of this, we are calling on you to remove John Chisholm as Milwaukee County District Attorney. It is clear to us as legislators and many people from the Waukesha County and Milwaukee County areas affected by the recent tragedy that District Attorney Chisholm has neglected his duty in his office.”

Senate Republicans followed up on the letter tweeting, “John Chisholm has protected dangerous, repeat offenders instead of fighting for safer communities. Governor Evers should act to remove him immediately.” Other Republican candidates for state offices followed suit.

Among the 14 Wisconsin Republicans signed onto the letter are several who’ve pushed tougher on crime policies targeting Milwaukee. In 2019, Rep. Joe Sanfelippo (R-New Berlin) and Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) joined with other GOP members to introduce a raft of bills focusing on the parole system, imposing new mandatory minimums for offenses like retail theft, expanding the reasons for which a juvenile may be placed in the Serious Juvenile Offender Program, among other measures. Sanfelippo emerged as one of the most vocal proponents of the tougher-on-crime bills; on Tuesday he also called for political opponents on the Wisconsin Elections Commission board and staff to resign.

Tough on Milwaukee, tough on crime

While some bipartisan justice reform bills eventually became law, the more regressive policies were vetoed by Evers in early 2020. The governor has advocated for crime prevention, decreasing Wisconsin’s prison population and moving towards evidence-based reform policies. In response to the letter, he noted there was no citizen complaint, which is the first step in such a process.

Much deeper divisions on approaches to crime and justice reform played out in the Legislature this session. Some legislators have pushed policies rooted in the fact that many prisons and jails across the state have been chronically overcrowded for years. Wisconsin incarcerates one out of every 36 Black residents, which is the highest rate in the country. The Badger State also leads the country in referring students, most of whom are minorities, to law enforcement. Black residents are over nine times more likely to be stopped by police in Milwaukee than white residents. The 53206 zip code in Milwaukee is the nation’s most incarcerated zip code. Meanwhile, close to 70% of the Black population in Wisconsin lives in Milwaukee County, with only a small percentage living in surrounding communities outside the city of Milwaukee itself.

Calls for tougher-on-crime policies have followed the tragedy in Waukesha, where six people were killed and over 60 people wounded after a car allegedly driven by 39-year-old Darrell Brooks drove into the parade. Brooks was quickly apprehended afterward and is believed to have acted alone.

Days prior, Brooks had been released on what Chisholm later said was an inappropriately low bail. During a Milwaukee County committee meeting on Dec. 2, the district attorney further elaborated on what led up to Brooks being released. Brooks had been held on $10,000 bail over a domestic violence case but, due to the strain on the system augmented by the pandemic, a speedy trial date could not be set. Thus, Brooks’ bail needed to be re-evaluated. After bail was reset at $500, the case went to an assistant district attorney who doubled the bail amount. The assistant district attorney, however, did not have access to a risk assessment done on Brooks because it hadn’t yet been uploaded. Brooks is now being held on $5 million bail in relation to the Waukesha tragedy.

Several county supervisors reported that they were personally impacted by the Waukesha Christmas Parade tragedy. Supvs. Ryan Clancy, Sylvia Ortiz-Velez and Pattie Logsdon expressed this during and prior to the Dec. 2 meeting with Chisholm. However, whereas Clancy asked Chisholm about ways to support community-based strategies, and Ortiz-Velez highlighted funding and staffing issues with the DA’s office, Logsdon called for more people to be incarcerated and even linked lax cannabis enforcement to violent crime like the Waukesha tragedy.

The GOP letter to Evers echoes many of those calls to be “tougher on crime.”

In the letter the Republicans  argue that reforms on limiting cash bail “have failed,” and referred to comments made by the district attorney in 2007. In a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel piece, Chisholm reasoned, “is there going to be an individual I divert, or put into [a] treatment program, who’s going to go out and kill somebody? You bet. Guaranteed. It’s guaranteed to happen.” The Republican lawmakers’ letter adds that “Chisholm has fulfilled his own prophecy and innocent Wisconsinites have now paid and will continue to pay the price for his actions.”

Shortly after Brooks was re-arrested in connection with the Waukesha incident, Republicans had another response: Rep. Cindi Duchow (R-Town of Delafield) and Sen. Van Wanggaard (R-Racine) began pushing to amend the state Constitution to require judges to consider a person’s dangerousness to the community in setting the amount for cash bail.

Judges already have that authority under Wisconsin statutes, however. Judges also have such tools as GPS monitoring or other forms of intense supervision if the suspect poses a danger. A growing number of lawyers and legal experts in Wisconsin have voiced their concerns that such an amendment would increase pre-trial detention solely because people are not wealthy enough to pay bail. Critics called the GOP amendment proposal a “knee-jerk” reaction.

Duchow is one of the 14 Republicans calling for Chisholm’s removal. She and Senate President Chris Kapenga (R-Delafield) are the first two GOP members listed on the letter.  Rep. Janel Brandtjen (R-Menomonee Falls), who joined Sanfelippo in June to further single out Milwaukee as a haven of crime, also signed the letter. Whereas Sanfelippo had called for the Wisconsin National Guard to be deployed to Milwaukee to quell crime, Brandtjen painted a frightening picture of the city: “A large part of Milwaukee is now run by gangs,” she claimed, going on to call Milwaukee and Madison “horrendous.”

Republican responses to the Waukesha tragedy have been a moving target. “In light of the devastation to the Waukesha community,” reads the letter, “it is clear Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm has neglected his duty to the citizens of Milwaukee County and the State of Wisconsin, and he should be removed in accordance with Wis. Stat. § 17.06 (3) immediately.”

Neither Chisholm or the District Attorney’s Office responded as of publication time to a request for comment regarding the letter. Any update will be provided.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Isiah Holmes
Isiah Holmes

Isiah Holmes is a journalist and videographer, and a lifelong resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His writing has been featured in Urban Milwaukee, Isthmus, Milwaukee Stories, Milwaukee Neighborhood News Services, Pontiac Tribune, the Progressive Magazine, Al Jazeera, and other outlets.