Jeff Altenburg, Community Prosecutor Team Captain, Milwaukee District Attorney’s Office
Jeff Altenburg, Community Prosecutor Team Captain, Milwaukee District Attorney’s Office
Jeff Altenburg has been a prosecutor since 1997 and in 2002 joined the Milwaukee District Attorney’s Community Prosecution Unit, where he is currently the Community Prosecution Team Captain as well as the Community Prosecutor for Milwaukee Police Department District Three. In June 2007, he was named the Assistant District Attorney of the Year by the Wisconsin District Attorney Association. Shortly after, he spoke with the Center about the award and Milwaukee’s vision for community prosecution, and how it’s changed since he was interviewed by Center staff in May 2006.
Since we last spoke, John Chisholm has become Milwaukee’s District Attorney. What changes have taken place in the prosecutor’s office as a result?
Since John’s been elected, he’s reorganized our office. He merged our felony and misdemeanor teams to create general crimes teams, and he divided those up geographically around our community prosecutors. So we have six community prosecutors in Milwaukee County, and they each represent six out of the seven police districts spread throughout the city. Because he didn’t have enough general crimes people, he had to have five teams instead of six but he created those teams around the geographic areas that the community prosecutors represent. So, for instance, I’m in District 3, and I have another community prosecutor in District 4. They merged those two districts for purposes of general crimes and any misdemeanor or felony crime that occurs within those two districts goes to one team, which handles all the cases out of that area. The natural result of that also is that two courts are the only ones who hear cases out of that area. So now when an offense occurs in a particular district the police are going to know which team of DA’s will be handling it—that never changes—and ultimately which judges are going to be handling those cases as well. It makes the courts and the DA’s office much more accountable to the neighborhoods, as well as much more knowledgeable about the neighborhoods they’re handling the cases for.
John also merged our drug units with our gun unit and created a violent crime unit. The goal is to have four violent crime teams so that we’ll have geographic community prosecutors on our gun and drug side also.
It’s been a pretty big transformation. We’re still experiencing some of the growing pains associated with it. Overall I think the response from law enforcement has been good because they like the fact that they know who they’re going to be dealing with. We feel the same way. We have a deeper ability to communicate with our law enforcement partners and with our community partners.
The last piece of the puzzle is this: if we’re going to try to put more of our resources into geographically consistent community prosecution and really focus on the worst of worst, the major violators, the flip side is that we’re also really trying to do a better job of keeping those individuals who shouldn’t be in the criminal justice system out of the criminal justice system. So we’ve developed a fairly rigorous alternative to incarceration screening process in our office. We’re diverting more and more of our cases and some that we can’t divert because of the nature of the crime or the victim or because of the offender’s prior record, we’ve been doing deferred prosecution for, which is something brand new for us.
The problem we’re running into—which is a problem I think a lot of DAs across the country run into—is that while we feel like we have an endless supply of clientele, we don’t have an endless supply of treatment providers. That has been our biggest struggle.
Can you talk about the Assistant District Attorney of the Year award? What has that meant for you and your office?
It’s significant for our office and for our community prosecution program because it’s a recognition by the rest of the state of Wisconsin that they like what we are trying to do with community-based prosecution and find it to be effective. That’s the vein in which we accepted the award. Nobody else in Wisconsin has the ability to do community-based prosecution to the extent that we do, because we went out and got all these grants. But now there are other communities within Wisconsin that are seeing that if they can try to come up with more community-based collaboration, they can do a better job of connecting with community and also combating crime.
So it was just a very nice recognition by prosecutors that don’t typically think this way, that they might be onto something in Milwaukee and so we want to recognize that.
I will also say this: I think the award is just the end result of this but because we’ve built up our community-based prosecution program, any federal grant that comes into Milwaukee county that’s law enforcement based or community based looking to collaborate with law enforcement basically looks to our community prosecution program as a model. In other words, through the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Department of Justice, Milwaukee got a $2.5 million dollar anti-gang grant, and it is focused on two of our districts: district two, which is a south side district, and district five, which is a north side district, and it’s going to pour through our community prosecution program. Any grant application that’s put together incorporates community prosecution. So I think that’s a nice recognition of the fact that our city leaders and our law enforcement recognize community prosecution and like the way it works.
MAY 2006 INTERVIEW:
When did your office first get interested in community prosecution?
It was early 2000. Then Assistant District Attorney, Derek Mosley, now a Municipal Court judge, had done some reading on community prosecution. He went to talk to the D.A. and they both agreed that it would be a good idea, both to provide a more direct linkage between the community and law enforcement and to deal with drug houses and nuisance properties within Milwaukee. They submitted for a Department of Justice grant and our first community prosecution unit was established in an area known as the Harambee neighborhood located within Milwaukee Police District 5. The original Community Prosecution unit consisted of two prosecutors who worked together out of Milwaukee Police Department’s District 5 and the Harambee Ombudsman Project, Inc., a community-based organization in the area.
How does your program work?
Originally, two assistant district attorneys were placed in the community to focus on nuisance properties, drug houses, and street-level nuisance behavior in general. Today, we are a full unit with six assistant district attorneys, located in six of the seven City of Milwaukee Police Districts. We continue to do a fair amount of work in the nuisance abatement area, but we’ve expanded our efforts to include law enforcement intelligence sharing through our Target Teams, targeted investigations through our Major Violators Program (the “MVP” program), and district level case review, which includes all of the non-victim misdemeanor cases and some of the felony gun and drug cases.
Our MVP program revolves around a list of approximately 20 individuals in each of our respective districts that law enforcement in consultation with its partners has determined are the most violent individuals within each of those districts. These individuals are then specifically targeted by the district Target Teams for arrest and prosecution to the fullest extent of the law. We’re not looking to divert or refer them to alternative sources. They’re hardcore criminals who have fairly lengthy records and our goal is to suppress and incarcerate them for as long as possible.
Much of the work of the MVP program is coordinated through the district Target Teams. Each of the districts has established its own Target Team, which includes the district Community Prosecutor, the Milwaukee Police Department officers assigned to the Community Prosecutor, nuisance and anti-gang units, probation and parole, the Milwaukee County Department’s Sheriff’s Department, the downtown gang unit, and Community Partners, an organization that does a lot of street-level outreach work and gives us some non-law-enforcement eyes and ears out on the street. Each target team meets twice monthly to talk about the activities of those 20 MVPs, what investigations are going on, what arrests have been made, and what contact has been made with probation and parole and other law enforcement entities. In addition to providing for long term targeted investigations, which may include search warrants and other more sophisticated investigation techniques, the MVP and Target Team initiatives are a mechanism for the Community Prosecutors to ensure that various levels within law enforcement start talking to each other.
Can you give some examples of intelligence sharing and how it’s been effective?
Traditionally, MPD district officers didn’t interact much with the Division of Community Corrections - Probation and Parole (“P&P”). They didn’t know how much information P&P could really provide. Co-locating P&P at the MPD district stations has been key to getting the district officers accustomed to the type of information P&P can provide, along with coercing the officers to work with P&P on a daily basis.
That’s probably the thing that we’re the most excited about, the P&P component of our program. Some of the MVPs are already being supervised by P&P. Therefore, the district P&P agents are able to update law enforcement on the MVP offender’s status, and what, if any new, conditions of probation they have. We had an MVP yesterday who was never home when the agent was checking on him, so the agent took him in for a few days and gave him a new restriction that he has to be home from 10 p.m. until 6 a.m. Law enforcement now knows that if they go to the residence after 10 p.m. and he’s not there, then that’s a violation of his probation. There was no effective mechanism before for that that information to be relayed to the district officers, because the district officers and P&P did not have an effective way to communicate with each other.
Are the MVPs criminals who would otherwise be slipping through the cracks?
The MVP program is premised upon the reality that a minority of the individuals within a community commit the majority of the crimes. If you can determine who those individuals are and focus on them, you’re going to have a long-term impact on violent crime within the community. Therefore, to some extent, they were falling through the cracks because the extent of their prior criminal activity was not being brought to the attention of the judges dealing with them. Now, when any of these MVPs are arrested and/or goes to court, we have fairly detailed bail arguments and sentencing memorandums we’ve put together to make sure the judge fully understands the impact these people have been having on the community.
Have you started seeing a change in crime rates?
Well, it’s too early to tell. This community prosecution unit with all six individuals has only been in effect since August 2005. We certainly have had some success in putting together some cases on these individuals as a result of long-term investigations as opposed to the simple traffic stop or field interviews. Part of this process is trying to get law enforcement to understand how to do things the right way. A traffic stop may be productive in some situations. In other situations, street interdiction or street level “jump outs” may in fact be appropriate given the circumstances. However, it is usually far more productive from an evidentiary point to use surveillance, search warrants, subpoena’s and the other tools law enforcement has available to them, and that’s what we’re focusing on with the district officers.
We’re also looking at long-term conspiracy investigations. In District Three, we recently completed a drug conspiracy case that led to the arrest of seven of the individuals on our MVP list. They’re all gang affiliated and it’s pretty much a drug crew that has committed a series of not only drug deals but also shootings within a fairly small neighborhood.
What are some other initiatives you are working on?
We need to be doing a much better job of taking the non-violent offenders, individuals other than those 20 MVPs, and diverting them from the criminal justice system. We’ve just begun that process. We’ve started screening cases, looking for cases that are more appropriate for diversion, for alcohol and drug assessment and treatment, for mental health assessment and treatment, or for simple community service and other non-post-charge programs. That’s going to be the long-term focus of our program.
How do the diversions work? Are you working more closely with the court system?
Well, truth be told we’re just trying this as a Community Prosecution pilot project in order to establish a procedure and a protocol that we can utilize office-wide and ultimately integrate into the court system. So these are all pre-charge versions, cases that the court system doesn’t even know about because we don’t charge them.
We have a pre-trial and a post-charge criminal justice provider that we work with called Justice 2000 whose primary focus is on those with mental health and Alchohol and Drug Abuse related issues. If we are able to identify that the offender is appropriate for diversion from a criminal charge, meaning we can prove his or her crime beyond a reasonable doubt but we just don’t think it’s worth the time and we don’t think it’s going to better serve the community or the offender, we then make a referral to Justice 2000. Case workers from Justice 2000 screen the clients, talk to them about what some of their treatment needs are, and recommend a set program for the individual. We sit down the individual, reach a pre-charge agreement, release them and give them an opportunity to follow through.
As in many jurisdictions throughout the United States, our court system is undergoing some significant funding issues. Therefore, we have every reason to believe that they will be receptive to this program.
Initially was there a challenge getting law enforcement on board, and/or proving the value of the program?
I would say that a lot of our success has been tracked anecdotally. We continue to get positive reviews from the community. We are able to show some successes with respect to specific properties and specific problems. That was enough to get us some attention not only from the media but from law enforcement and grant funders, and that’s how we were able to build our program.
At the end of the year, we put together a list of notable accomplishments for all the districts and it basically ended up being a number of cases, specific instances where we had gotten a community complaint, followed up on it, and took care of the problem. Or we’d gotten report of a particular drug dealer dealing in a particular location and did a surveillance, and were able to make an arrest and follow that prosecution through. And we were able to track what physically we were able to do out of districts: how many search warrants we were doing, how many cases we were reviewing, how many ride-alongs, how many community meetings.
Does that really show tangible substantive successes? In some cases it did, but it was almost a kind of spewing forth of statistics. I don’t know if that is a great way to track the success of your program, but that’s kind of where we are right now.
How do you see the program’s future?
Well, the current District Attorney in Milwaukee, E. Michael McCann, is not running for reelection after 38 years of service to Milwaukee County. He’s the longest serving District Attorney in the United States. Our colleague , Assistant District Attorney John Chisholm, who is current Team Captain of the Firearms Enforcement Unit is currently a candidate for the position of District Attorney and has a lot of his campaign platform built around community prosecution and diversion, on focusing the appropriate law enforcement resources on the most serious violent offenders but also focusing on diverting the non-violent offenders away from the criminal justice system.
John understands that if we’re going to continue the Community Prosecution program, it cannot be grant dependent. It’s going to have to become a part of the way we do things in our office, and that requires an entire restructuring of the office. We have 130 prosecutors between the adult and the juvenile system and it’s a huge task. But with that as the goal, it gives us good reason to believe that within a year or two we will be able to absorb these responsibilities and we will not be dependant on grants.
John’s concept is reorganizing the entire downtown unit around these police districts and around these neighborhoods. Instead of having a separate misdemeanor team and a separate felony team, let's have, for example, a District 3 general crimes team that will review misdemeanors and felonies alike and funnel those cases into the same court, with the same judge, so the judge is accountable to that neighborhood and we’re doing a better job of focusing on the violent, serious offenders and diverting the non-violent, non-serious offenders.
So you think that community prosecution can be institutionalized in prosecutors’ offices?
Yes. Before this campaign started I would have told you that I think we’d be hard pressed to sustain it. Even though we’ve been able to expand it every year and obviously we’ve gotten good reaction from the community and from law enforcement. But we all know that grants don’t last forever. With Mike McCann’s continued support for the program until the end of his term in January, 2007, and John Chisholm’s vision for the integration of Community Prosecution into the everyday activities of the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s office in the next few years, we believe we have an excellent chance of completely institutionalizing the program in the near future.