Election for Milwaukee County sheriff comes as agency faces significant challenges, a vote of no-confidence for leadership

·6 min read

Editor's note: An earlier posted version of this story attributed to Chief Deputy Denita Ball that she had the endorsement of Sheriff Earnell Lucas in the Aug. 9 primary. After the story was published online she issued a correction in which she said the sheriff was remaining neutral in the race.

Voters head to the polls Tuesday to pick the next Milwaukee County sheriff at a time the agency is confronting significant problems.

All three candidates are running as Democrats: Chief Deputy Denita Ball, Inspector Brian Barkow and Capt. Thomas Beal.

The sheriff's office is in charge of operating and overseeing the county jail, investigating crimes, providing security across the county including the airport and courts, and patrolling the county’s parks and highways.

Whoever is elected will also inherit some of the agency's major problems: staggering staffing shortages and ongoing concerns about the welfare of those housed at the County Jail, as well as record-breaking homicides, and an uptick in violence and crime across the Milwaukee area.

"Given the finances of the county and given society, being sheriff is perhaps a thankless position — is perhaps a 'no win' position," said Mordecai Lee, a political science professor at UW-Milwaukee. "You're facing staffing shortages, you're facing funding difficulties, you're facing crime, you're facing speeding and you're facing disorder in the parks. It's a very hot seat."

Milwaukee County Sheriff candidates, from left, Chief Deputy Denita Ball, Inspector and Commander of the Investigative Services Bureau Brian Barkow and sheriff's Capt. Thomas Beal will square off in an Aug. 9 primary.
Milwaukee County Sheriff candidates, from left, Chief Deputy Denita Ball, Inspector and Commander of the Investigative Services Bureau Brian Barkow and sheriff's Capt. Thomas Beal will square off in an Aug. 9 primary.

The Milwaukee Deputy Sheriff's Association issued the current administration — as well as Sheriff Earnell Lucas and Ball — "no confidence" votes on Aug. 4 — less than a week before the election.

Lucas announced earlier this year he would not seek reelection — days after finishing fifth in Milwaukee's primary election for mayor.

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County Executive David Crowley, another top elected official, announced he was not endorsing any of the candidates for the upcoming sheriff’s race. He is, however, hoping that the next person elected will bring those solutions to the table.

“We need them to come up with solutions,” he told the Journal Sentinel. “We already know what the problems are.”

Tackling big issues at the agency

Each of the candidates has presented plans to tackle problems the agency faces, including concerns about understaffing, lack of incentives for retention and recruitment of staff, and the relationship with the county's House of Correction, as well as the transparency of the sheriff's office following in-custody deaths and suicides at the jail.

Ball has a lead in fundraising and spending over her two opponents.

According to county reports, Ball has spent nearly $50,000 on the contest and is sitting on $6,000 in cash. By contrast, Beal has paid out just under $10,000 since the start of the year, and Barkow's campaign has spent only about $400. As of July 25, Barkow had $27,363 cash on hand. Beal reported $15,534 cash on hand as of July 15.

But for all three candidates, while their opinions of the current administration differ, the buck stops at the current sheriff, saying that despite their roles in the agency, they have not had the means to implement much-needed changes under Lucas' administration.

The big question: How would they each handle the jail and staffing needs of the agency?

Lucas appointed Ball as deputy chief in 2018. While she applauded the current administration, Ball wants her running of the office to be more "hands-on," saying she would work with the County Board to get the resources to help create more incentives for staff — current and prospective — and create a "superior jail."

"You can't believe everything that is being told to us," Ball told the Journal Sentinel, referring to current concerns about the conditions at the jail. "I think the jail is getting mischaracterized, especially with the people who are still here and working very hard every day to ensure the safety of those who work there, as well as those who are in our care and in our custody."

Beal, who currently serves as a commander at the jail, has said that Lucas has had "somewhat of a hands-off administration" since the beginning, making no changes.

"They kept everything status quo," he said. "We need to make changes and start being more innovative."

He acknowledged the permanent $3 hourly premium for correctional officers and the 2% raise overall and some lump sum payments for all Milwaukee County employees as incentives but said more needed to be done.

Beal said he would make sure staff receive adequate time off, create a multiple-jurisdiction task force to tackle crime across the county, and introduce signing and retention bonuses — all of which, he believes, would solve the staffing shortage and improve the overall conditions in the jail.

Barkow blames the shortages on poor management and supervision. He wants an overhaul of the agency by making the sheriff's office "a 21st century organization" and providing better training, supervision and management across the board.

"We need a more democratic leadership style," he said. "We have to change the culture."

And the shift would also be external. Barkow wants to establish an independent ombudsman for jail oversight and also introduce public-facing dashboards to share data on use-of-force incidents, the jail, and potentially disciplinary outcomes for employees to improve transparency with residents and hold the office accountable.

Lucas and Ball receive 'no confidence' vote

On Thursday, the Milwaukee Deputy Sheriff's Association took a "no confidence" vote. The push for the vote was "overwhelming," according to Sgt. Fredrick Gladney, president of the Milwaukee Deputy Sheriffs’ Association.

All 270 deputies and sergeants with the sheriff's office are represented by the association — 84 of the members turned in anonymous ballots for the vote. Forty members were not eligible to vote as they have been members for less than one year.

Both Lucas and Ball received 77 votes of "no confidence" and 77 said the current administration was not doing a good job.

The union has endorsed Barkow.

Lucas declined to comment.

About the call for the vote, Ball said: "It's disappointing that the things that we have done thus far are being diminished."

This is the second time in recent history the association has taken such a vote. Former Sheriff David A.Clarke Jr., who served from 2002 to 2017, was the target of a no-confidence vote within five months of taking office.

Since his disappointing finish in the mayor's race, Lucas has been described as absent, which has drawn much criticism within the office.

"He's been absent. He's around, but I don't know if he's doing anything," Gladney said. "He doesn't come out and talk to the people and doesn't talk to the staff."

Gladney said some members refer to Lucas as "Clarke 2.0."

"The only thing that's different is he's more personable and talks to everybody, but it's the same thing," Gladney said.

Daniel Bice of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.

Contact Vanessa Swales at 414-308-5881 or vswales@gannett.com. Follow her on Twitter @Vanessa_Swales.

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Milwaukee County sheriff race comes during big challenges for agency