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Budget proposal calls for funding of witness protection program

ImageThis past summer, a Milwaukee County drug case informant, who was the subject of attempted murder, was able to get protection thanks to an updated witness protection pilot program.

Since Milwaukee’s previous program was abandoned in 2003 due to a lack of state funding, the ability of the district attorney’s office to provide reliable protection has been shaky. This year, a federal grant revived those efforts as a pilot program and the county executive has indicated he will continue funding for it in 2009.

Milwaukee County District Attorney John T. Chisholm said the new initiative, funded by a $50,000 state grant, has allowed a group of six investigators to proactively pursue those people who intimidate witnesses. The drug informant was one of the witnesses the revived program was able to protect.

“When those guys came gunning for our witness, we were able to go to the location of those gunmen, get inside the house and match the bullets to the gun,” said Chisholm.

“Before, that was pretty improbable.”

Since June 1, when the pilot program started, through Sept. 10, the district attorney’s office has screened more than 250 cases, gotten involved in almost 100 and made 24 arrests.

Chisholm noted that all 24 of those arrests resulted in prosecutions.

“When witnesses say, ‘We don’t want to cooperate,’ we can at least give them some options,” said Chisholm. “It’s a lot better than having to say to informants, ‘We need you to talk, but we can’t do anything to really help you.”

County Proposed Funding

Given the success of the pilot, Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker is looking to allocate $345,000 in the 2009 budget and reestablish the witness protection program.

The Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Department abandoned its witness protection program in 2003 because of a dramatic drop in state funding.

“That makes it easier for me to justify a slight spending increase in this area when I saw the kind of results they had,” said Walker, who did not include any other significant expenditures in the district attorney’s office budget.

At this point, the proposal has not prompted any vocal opposition and Walker said he hopes it will gain approval from the County Board.

“Has there been any opposition?” said Walker. “I can’t imagine there will be for something that the district attorney [John Chisholm] and I worked on which showed the need for this program.”

Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors Chairman Lee Holloway could not be reached, but spokesperson Harold Mester said the board would evaluate the funding proposal as a part of Walker’s entire budget scheduled for release tomorrow.

“I haven’t heard a lot of discussion, but certainly the board does have the power to amend the budget and prioritize the right level of funding for programs,” said Mester.

Additional Staff

Chisholm shifted six of seven investigators and three interns within his office to work on the summer pilot, but will gain three new full-time assistant district attorneys specifically for the program, if approved by the board.

A permanent five-member squad will be established, which would come as a relief to Chisholm, who is facing the loss of eight assistant district attorney positions next April.

“It’s kind of ironic, but in this case [the pilot] it’s a great example of things going the way we intended,” said Chisholm. “We got the seed money, had some success and went to the local level where they said let’s make this a permanent program.”

The state grant ends on Sept. 30 and the county board will vote on budget revisions in November.

But Chisholm said that another $50,000 grant could be forthcoming to sustain the program through the end of the year.

“It’s in the works and ideally, that would take us to the first of the year at which point we’ll start advocating at the state level for some form of witness protection fund,” said Chisholm.

While he is optimistic that Walker’s proposal will make the cut in 2009, Chisholm said he knows the program could die just as it did in 2003 if in the long run, state funding is not secured.

“Will we hear, ‘We can’t afford it?’” said Chisholm. “That’s a legitimate fear and so we just have to do our best to make our case and work with the resources we have right now.”

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