When John Milhiser took over as U.S. attorney for the Central District of Illinois in 2018, he had several priorities for the office, including plans to build working relationships with 365 law enforcement agencies dotted across the sprawling 46-county federal district.
Milhiser leaves office on Feb. 28, a departure he knew was possible when he moved into his Springfield office. Milhiser and other prosecutors who were appointed during the Trump administration, or confirmed by the Senate, were asked to resign recently as part of the Biden transition.
When he took over the lead prosecutor’s role, Milhiser had a message for law enforcement: “We want to attack whatever problem you have in your community, whether it be violent crime, elder abuse, child exploitation, or whatever criminal element it is in your community. We want to partner with you, attack the problem and make your community a safer place. And I think we’ve done that.”
Offers of federal resources to local communities come as police across the country are facing calls to defund the police. The death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minnesota last year brought calls to reduce public dollars for police.
Milhiser said, “it seems like I’m leaving at a time where it’s even more difficult for law enforcement to do their job.” A small number of officers are responsible for some "horrific things,’” said Milhiser, but cutting budgets for all police is not the answer.
“The funding isn’t always for more bullets and more guns. It’s for dealing with all these additional responsibilities that law enforcement has,” said Milhiser, including the increased demand for officers to respond to mental health calls.
Few criminal cases illustrate threats to community safety better than the 2019 federal trial of 13 defendants, collectively known as The Bomb Squad, in Peoria. The suspects, all in their 20s, were convicted in connection with widespread gang violence, murder and racketeering, starting in 2013.
In the Peoria case, a multiagency collaboration allowed prosecutors “to dive in and attack the problem, identify the violent actors and prosecute them at the federal level,” said Milhiser, who previously served as Sangamon County state’s attorney.
Several unforeseen circumstances--the longest running federal government shutdown and a global pandemic--were part of Milhiser’s tenure. And then there was the widespread civil unrest after Floyd’s death in the early months of the COVID-19 shutdown.
“I was on nightly conference calls with other U.S. attorneys around the country,” said Milhiser, consulting on “how we continue to operate, do our job, and the mission of the Department of Justice, and protect our communities with the added dangers of COVID.”
Before the pandemic ended most in-person contact, Milhiser’s office rolled out the BLAST (Building Lasting Relationships) program, a forum for teens and law enforcement. Police use scenarios to teach students the realities of police work. They also share information about potential law enforcement careers.
The need for civil dialogue extends beyond teens and police officers, said Milhiser. “There has been a complete breakdown in the ability of people to communicate and an ability of people with differing opinions to have a discussion,” he said.
Milhiser’s experience as a state prosecutor who saw the collateral damage caused by violent crime led him to add a victim advocate to his federal team. After a verdict, a defendant is sentenced and a prosecutor moves onto the next case, but, said Milhiser, “that victim is a victim forever. They’re often reliving incredibly traumatic events that happened, so we cannot forget about them.”
Community resources for victims help with the healing process, he said.
As far as his future plans, Milhiser said the focus he brought to the U.S. attorney’s office will follow him to his next position.
“I come to work each day and try to do the best I can to improve the community. That won’t change. It just won’t be in the U.S. Attorney’s Office. It will be somewhere else.”