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Wauwatosa Police Chief MacGillis takes department in a new direction


Wauwatosa Police Chief MacGillis takes department in a new direction

Jun 01, 2023 | 6:45 am ET
By Isiah Holmes
Wauwatosa Police Chief MacGillis takes department in a new direction
Wauwatosa Police Chief James MacGillis (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

“The first two years have been really great, have been rewarding,” James MacGillis, chief of the Wauwatosa Police Department (WPD), told Wisconsin Examiner, reflecting on what many saw as a new chapter for the city. When he was hired in July 2021, MacGillis sought to move WPD in a different direction,  cultivating positivity and building relationships both inside and outside the department.

MacGillis stressed that he’s not the mayor or city administrator, and WPD officers have a specific lane to stay in. “We have a role to fulfill. But people also equate government with policing,” he said. “Our people in the police department do these things, but we’re also people. And I think that’s also bridged a lot of that gap, [to] develop stronger relationships going forward, is hearing different perspectives.”

The Wauwatosa Police Department (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
The Wauwatosa Police Department (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

MacGillis and other command-level staff at WPD have acquainted themselves with local groups and officials. From common council members to groups like Tosa Together, Tosa Tonight, businesses, the school board and other community organizations. “We all have our pieces that we care about, and we can sit down and have a conversation and figure out where our goals align,” said MacGillis. “You can’t do that if you’re not a human being, and you’re not treating people with mutual respect.” The chief added, “we can’t force people to see us as human, all we can do is be. What does it mean to ‘be?’ Be yourself, be genuine. It’s a tough job to be a police professional nowadays, but it always has been a tough job. It’s a challenging career that has always been rewarding. It’s OK to allow people to see you.”

Arriving at WPD, MacGillis found himself among officers and staff who had worked together for many years. Earning their trust was among his first, most important tasks.  The cohesion within WPD was also one of the things that drew MacGillis to the department, he says. “We’ve asked our employees ‘What do we need to fix? What do we need to work on?’” he says.

New tech, and approaches under a new chief

Beyond merely suggesting changes, MacGillis wants department staff to feel empowered to bring those requests to fruition. “Whether it’s how we utilize promotions or our workforce flexibility policy, or how we leverage technology, or how we engage in directed patrol missions,” he says. “They have some really great ideas and they’re incredibly intelligent and professional people at all levels. Whether you’re an administrative assistant or a patrol officer or a sergeant, really harnessing their acumen and their creativity to be a better and more efficient police department.”

Leveraging new technology and talent among staff has been a focus for MacGillis. He brought new software and cameras into the department and has established partnerships with businesses and neighborhood associations. Even infrastructure issues like road design may affect the community’s overall health, which in turn affects WPD, he says. One thing the department has been reviewing is how it schedules staff. “We’ve been doing it for years a certain way,” says MacGillis. “Well, if we look at a technology solution, and ask for some funding to do it, we figured out that we could be 20-30% more efficient in how we supervise and deliver police services.”

Wauwatosa Police Chief James MacGillis (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
Wauwatosa Police Chief James MacGillis (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

Increasing efficiency has also meant reworking the flow of what officers are asked to do. “Does it require a sworn police officer going out with a gun and a badge to handle a call that could be handled by a community service officer?” MacGillis asks. Optimizing the community service officer in particular has been a focus for him. Not long ago, a resident dropped off a cat and kittens at WPD, which doesn’t handle animal control. A community service officer dealt with the situation, and the department put out a reminder to the public that the police aren’t a one-in-all agency. WPD, authorized to have 104 sworn officers, currently has 96, seven of whom were in field training at the end of May.

To further streamline responses, the city of Wauwatosa hired a public health social worker. It was a move that leadership at the police and fire departments pushed for. Police and fire often respond to medical calls. Often, however, those sorts of calls are not police or law enforcement matters. “If we know who to call, or if we have somebody on staff, we can make those referrals to do that follow-on care,” says MacGillis.

Our officers make the most referrals to public health.

– James MacGillis, Wauwtosa Chief of Police

The city hired public health social worker Kendall Wolters in April 2022. Last year, from May to December, Wolters took 59 referrals from the police department. Of those, 25 were for mental health, 12 were for basic needs or resources, 10 were for substance use, nine were domestic violence-related, and three were for cases of hoarding. As of May 26 of this year, WPD has made an additional 41 referrals. MacGillis praised Wolters for earning a social worker of the year award during her time working for the city. “It’s her first year here,” he said.  “She hit the ground running. Our officers make the most referrals to public health.”

Controversial gear and investigations

The chief also referenced FLOCK cameras, which come installed with automatic license plate reader technology. “Several other jurisdictions are using them,” said MacGillis. “If I’m you as a citizen, I’d be concerned about the whole ‘Big Brother’ issue. We can’t ignore that fact, but it’s not arbitrarily focusing on people. It’s leveraging the significant advances in technology to focus on people that we know are involved in criminal behavior. Whether it’s a shooting or a robbery or a retail theft, or any type of crime category. We put that information pre-loaded in there and then it will search for those types of vehicles.” Macgillis added, “It’s amazing technology that helps us in policing but also protects people’s Constitutional rights.”

WPD has only recently begun utilizing FLOCK camera systems. FLOCK is just one vendor for license plate reading technology. Its cameras are used in over 2,000 cities across at least 42 states, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. The cameras can be installed in police squad cars, operate from intersections, or keep an eye on local businesses and neighborhoods. Many license plate readers also allow police to create “hot lists” of plates associated with vehicles under suspicion. The systems alert officers if a license plate put on a hot list is sighted by one of the system’s cameras. Just months before Wauwatosa hired MacGillis in 2021, the Milwaukee area had ranked among the top cities to utilize surveillance cameras across the country.

The Wauwatosa Police Department (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
The Wauwatosa Police Department (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

WPD’s automatic license plate reading technology played a role in an officer-involved shooting last April. Damiso Lee, 17, was driving his family’s car when he passed by WPD officer Evan Olson. As Lee passed, the license plate reader installed in Olson’s squad car activated and linked the car to a stolen vehicle report. Lee’s family, who had reported the car stolen to Milwaukee PD, hadn’t notified the police that the car had been recovered.

Olson followed Lee until the teen parked at an apartment building, then confronted him. Olson said he saw a gun in Lee’s pocket, and Lee turned to flee. Olson fired after the teen retrieved the firearm, which had fallen out his pocket as he ran. The shooting was ruled privileged by the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office. Olson had previously attracted controversy under former chief Barry Weber for punching a 15-year-old boy in the face during a confrontation at Mayfair Mall in 2018. Prior to that incident, Olson had been suspended three times.

WPD used the incident to reframe the way it communicates about officer-involved shootings to the public. After the district attorney’s decision was made public, WPD released a video going over details of the case. The video, which featured MacGillis, resembled the community briefing videos Milwaukee PD puts out after officer-involved shootings. In essence, a chain of events is recounted by police alongside video of the incident. For WPD, it was a completely new direction in terms of publicly discussing shooting incidents. In the past, information was often scant, and video either unavailable or doled out to some local media.

Many police squads showed up from Wauwatosa, Brookfield, and the Milwaukee County Sheriff's Office. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)
Wauwatosa police vehicles. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)

While the Lee shooting was MacGillis’ first as WPD’s chief, it wasn’t the first in his career. “I’ve been involved in several in my tenure in my previous career,” he says.

“I would say, respectfully, that our briefing is different than Milwaukee’s,” he adds. “It provides information and evidence, but it also talks to and speaks to the human-caring side of it.”

It’s emotionally painful; its traumatic. But it’s also painful and traumatic for the person on the receiving end of the force that we’re having to utilize.

– James MacGillis, Wauwatosa Chief of Police

MacGillis describes officer-involved shootings as a community-wide trauma. “It’s traumatic for an officer to have to do the unthinkable. To potentially end a human being’s life, to save their life or the life of another person,” he says. “It’s emotionally painful; its traumatic. But it’s also painful and traumatic for the person on the receiving end of the force that we’re having to utilize.”

The Lee briefing video was an attempt by WPD to address three elements of communication about officer-involved shootings, MacGillis says: “Providing the information, providing the evidence so people can make up their own minds, but also talking about the caring part of it.”

A Wauwatosa police squad. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
A Wauwatosa police squad. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

MacGillis says it’s critical for police agencies to move beyond the caricature of being cold, callus or robotic. He compares that image of police to the fictional detective Joe Friday from the TV series Dragnet. “No, we’re people,” he says. “And we’re people that were involved in a really tough situation. And there’s another person, a human being, that was involved in that tough situation as well.”

WPD has also made upgrades to its digital forensic unit under MacGillis. The unit, called “the nerd lab” by detectives, is involved in recovering digital evidence for investigations. It was also involved in the handling of phones seized from protesters during 2020. Upgrading the unit was part of a $170 million capital improvements program instituted by the city, $1.5 million of which was carved out for WPD. The digital forensics unit received a $45,000 server upgrade, allowing it to recover and process digital evidence more efficiently. Upgrading the server was needed due to increasing storage capacity on modern mobile devices, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported.

MacGillis did not offer more specifics on the unit’s upgrades. “It just makes us more efficient at processing and handling of digital evidence, and that’s the truth,” he said. While staff may request specific pieces of technology to be more efficient, MacGillis said constitutional implications are weighed along the way. “They have a legal due process,” he said of people who are investigated or taken into custody by police.  “We have to protect that, make sure that we’re handling evidence properly.”

Voces de la Frontera
As Capitol police officers move to block the doors to a Legislature Joint Finance Committee meeting in 2021, protesters pull out their phones to record. (Henry Redman | Wisconsin Examiner)

The Digital Forensics Unit is associated with the WPD’s Special Operations Group (SOG), which handles covert surveillance, cell phone data recovery and vice investigations. WPD’s latest annual report — the first to be released under MacGillis — lacks a section describing SOG that had been present in every previous annual report. Speaking of SOG and the Investigative Division more broadly, MacGillis said, “They are doing great work and have been doing great work for years. My role is to support their investigative needs.”

MacGillis also wouldn’t discuss the protester list created during 2020 by WPD’s crime analyst, who works among the detectives, nor the federal trial over the list earlier this month. The list was created under former Chief Weber. A federal jury decided in early May that the list and its use hadn’t violated certain privacy rights of people placed on it. Several controversies over WPD’s handling of protests in 2020 were eventually linked back to its investigative units, many of whose members remain employed at WPD. In the past, MacGillis has said he understood concerns about the list, but that it was taken out of context.

The Wauwatosa Police Department (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
The Wauwatosa Police Department (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

Since becoming chief, taking an introspective look at the culture within WPD has weighed on MacGillis’ mind. Issues raised by the public about the conduct of WPD officers boil down to department culture.

“To be a law enforcement professional nowadays, you have to be a guardian,” says MacGillis. “But you also have to have a warrior’s heart.”

“It’s a tough job that these officers do every day. Sometimes it doesn’t look pretty,”  he says. “But people are counting on us to serve our communities and keep them safe, in partnership with them.”