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Effort Dedicates More Prosecutors, Detectives to Fight Gun Crimes in Milwaukee

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When a teenage girl was shot to death this week in Milwaukee, the city’s homicide count hit 86 -- matching the total for all of 2014. Not long afterward, state and Milwaukee officials announced plans to prosecute more gun crimes.

Elected leaders believe they have a role to play in fighting violence, but that people need other places to turn to as well. Ald. Terry Witkowski says when violent outbursts occur, many people look to one place for help.

“When we talk about crime, people immediately think ‘police department,’ but that’s not the only way to address crime in Milwaukee. It’s addressed through our neighborhood services department, through city development, through the health department,” he says.

Witkowski, who chairs the city’s Public Safety Committee, asked representatives from a variety of agencies to appear Thursday before his panel. Witkowski believes they can talk about the city’s many tools, besides policing to fight crime.

“Trying to improve neighborhoods, trying to help people get jobs. There’s numerous programs that the city has,” he says.

Mayor Tom Barrett also believes in prevention. He says one such strategy is the city’s jobs program for youth.

“The long-term programs are the employment programs for the young people. We have to make sure that young people have positive experiences in their life, so that they’re off to a good start. That’s something that we’ve focused on and we’re going continue to focus on,” Barrett says.

Yet Barrett says the city’s role in fighting crime also includes pursuing the perpetrators -- especially those who commit gun crimes. So the city, county and state announced a new collaborative strategy this week.

“We felt that we needed to really recalibrate and realign our resources so that individuals who commit violent crimes with guns know that there are going to be ramifications, and know, first and foremost, that we’re comin’ after them,” Barrett says.

Under the deal, the city will dedicate at least 12 detectives to investigate firearm-related crimes. Federal funds will help cover the cost. The state justice department will assign two prosecutors to Milwaukee, while District Attorney John Chisholm will set up a second gun court. He says cooperation has worked in the past. Chisholm points to the county’s community-based prosecution program. He assigns staff to work in targeted neighborhoods along with police officers and community groups.

“Working with the mentally ill, working with individuals coming back in from the prison and jail, working with our faith-based partners, working with our schools that are the anchors in those neighborhoods, and trying to identify problems before they start in the first place,” Chisholm says.

“Everybody wants a magic solution to the problem of crime. There isn’t one,” says Milwaukee County Chief Judge Jeffrey Kremers. He also underscores the importance of government working with community partners in reducing violent crime. He says the courts and law enforcement can only do so much once people get into serious trouble with the law.

“I’m not minimizing the personal responsibility and the personal choices that some people make, but they rarely make them in isolation or in a vacuum. They didn’t just drop onto the Earth at 14, 15, 16, 17 years old with criminal thinking,” Kremers says.

Kremers says when it comes to the formative years, positive forces such as churches and schools must play a role in helping divert young people from a life of crime.

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