For nearly two decades, Milwaukee County’s Community Prosecution Program has been teaming up police with the District Attorney’s office to respond to citizen complaints. While it remains popular with residents, the program appears to be in jeopardy.
The federal government stopped funding the program last year. Only three of the seven Community Prosecution Units remain in operation in Milwaukee County, that is until they spend the last of the money allotted to them in previous years.
Some groups are considering seeking alternative funding to keep the program alive.
I met Community Prosecutor Ann Lopez at a big three-story brick house near 20th and Greenfield in Milwaukee. She says she’s following up on a homicide that happened on the property – and neighbors are concerned. They’ve asked her to investigate further to see if it’s a nuisance property.
“There are some allegations of a rooming house happening here. That can cause some issues. There may be drug issues going on, there may be other illegal activity happening within the residence,” Lopez explains.
Lopez is an assistant DA in the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s office. But, her duties go beyond trying cases in the courtroom, she actually reports to work every day at the District 2 Milwaukee Police station on the near south side. Then, she goes out and investigates neighborhood complaints, such as those raised at this property.
Lopez calls this type of visit a “knock and talk.” And, she doesn’t travel alone. She’s part of a Community Prosecution Unit - it consists of herself, a couple of Milwaukee police officers and representatives of the City’s Neighborhood Services division.
One of the tenants lets us in, and we climb up to the attic. Inspector Sue Steinbach explains what the team is looking for: “Sometimes we find people living upstairs in the attic. We try to check attics, basements, fire extinguishers."
Once we get back outside, assistant DA Lopez makes her assessment - the team didn’t find anything suspicious.
“It is not an illegal rooming house, it’s completely legit, it appears the owner is paying for some of the utilities and not all of the units are occupied. It appears that some may have left after the homicide there, so we made contact with who we could, making sure everything is okay,” Lopez says.
She says much of her job involves identifying and shutting down problem properties, such as drug houses.
Lopez says the program helps foster good relations between the Milwaukee police and the communities they serve. “Some people aren’t comfortable calling directly to law enforcement, 911, the non-emergency number, so we serve as a liaison or as a medium for the community and law enforcement."
Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm has called the program valuable, because it nips problems in the bud.
Betty Grinker lives near 30th and Greenfield on the south side, where drug houses and prostitution are prevalent. She says the Community Prosecution Unit in her neighborhood has been successful in helping to weed out problem properties.
She fears a spike in criminal activity if the unit runs out of money and has to disband. “Heaven help the neighborhoods if we don’t have this, there aren’t enough officers to cover all of these small calls that monitor the nuisance properties, they’re not going to be able to do it."
Grinker is founder of Operation Impact, a nonprofit that raised money last summer to hire a private security firm to help knock out prostitution in her neighborhood. She says her group will push for money to come from other sources, such as federal block grants or state funds, in hopes of keeping the community prosecution program alive.