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Tuesday's primary will determine Milwaukee County's next sheriff

Milwaukee County sheriff candidates
Tom Beal, Mohamed Awad, Danita Ball and Brian Barkow are running to become Milwaukee County's next sheriff.

Three people are on the ballot this Tuesday in a Democratic primary for Milwaukee County Sheriff — along with one write-in candidate.

This Democratic race will determine Milwaukee’s next sheriff, as there’s no one running in the Republican primary.

The four candidates met in a forum hosted by the Milwaukee Turners Thursday. A central focus was improving conditions at the Milwaukee County Jail.

The current sheriff, Earnell Lucas, is not seeking reelection. He made the announcement after a failed bid to become Milwaukee’s mayor.

Now, three veterans in the Sheriff’s Department are vying to fill the role, which oversees law enforcement at the courts, the airport, the Milwaukee County Jail, parks and freeways. They’re all running as Democrats, including Chief Deputy Dr. Denita Ball. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports that she is the highest-ranking woman in the history of the Milwaukee Sheriff’s Department. She has 35 years of law enforcement experience.

“I run the day-to-day operations of the sheriff's office. What I want to do with the sheriff's office is to make Milwaukee County a safer, stronger place to live, work, play and pray,” said Ball.

Inspector and Commander of the Investigative Services Bureau Brian Barkow introduced himself as well. He has 24 years with the Sheriff’s Department. “I'm the most qualified candidate to reduce violent crime address reckless driving, end the safety and staffing crisis in the Milwaukee County Jail and achieve greater trust and transparency," he said.

Captain Thomas Beal has been with the department for just over 25 years. He started as a deputy with the jail, then was a detective on investigations, then was promoted to lieutenant and is currently a captain and one of the commanders at the jail. He said, “I want to bring our community back into law enforcement where the community is a stakeholder, the transparency issues that we've had as law enforcement, we need to break those barriers down.”

There’s also a write-in candidate — Correctional Lieutenant Mohamed Awad. Before going into law enforcement in 2017, he worked with troubled youth and as a case manager. He said, “I'm going to be in the courts. I'm going to be on freeways. I'm going to be in the parks. I'm going to be actually listening to and responding to with action to the individuals in this community as a public servant.”

The candidates addressed the Milwaukee County Jail, which is facing severe staffing shortages of deputies and correctional officers.

As the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported Thursday, judges, workers and people currently housed in the jail have described what’s happening there as a “crisis,” a “ticking time bomb” and a “sinking ship.”

The facility is operating with just over half of the correctional officers that are authorized. In addition, it’s at capacity. So incarcerated people aren’t getting beds promptly. There are excessive lockdowns. Mental health care is scarce. And there’s not enough staff to escort dentists and doctors.

There have been four in-custody deaths between January 2020 and April 2021.

The candidates were asked if they agreed the jail is in dire straits and, if so, what they would do about it.

Here’s Chief Deputy Denita Ball: “I have said on in many forums that our staffing level is at a crisis level, but to say that it's a ticking time bomb, I think it really does a disservice to those who are working hard to come to work and do the job on a daily basis. But can we do better? Absolutely. Must we do better? Absolutely. Will we do better? We will.”

Mohamed Awad disagreed that the criticism is an attack on staff. He said they’re struggling as well from the shortages.

“Mental health is affecting not only the occupants that are cared for, but the individuals that do the hard job every day, and don't feel like they're put in good positions to remain safe,” said Awad. “That means every day when you come in, and we're at max capacity with individuals who are in our booking room and having to sleep down in the booking room given beds because they’re in the booking room for over 60 something hours, it’s not on the officers that are showing up to work, it's on the leaders that are setting them up for failures.”

Brian Barkow said the staffing crisis didn’t happen overnight, and that the Sheriff’s Department has to look internally and find out why there’s a crisis. “I mean, the easy answer often is to say, well, we don't pay enough. And that's true, and we need to be a better employer as a whole and offer more competitive salaries. But there's a lot that we can do, from the standpoint of reallocating staff, improving working conditions," he said.

Tom Beal said the staffing and hiring is a ticking time bomb, but that it’s an issue across the labor industry. “So it's not just the Milwaukee County Sheriff's Office, or law enforcement in general. But the thing is, we have to be a more competitive employer, we want to talk to the Milwaukee County Board to do something such as incentives to get people in the door and to retain to retain them," he said.

The candidates all said that access to mental health care in the jail is a priority as well. They all support expanding CART, or Crisis Assessment Response teams, which can divert people in mental health crises from ending up at the jail.

Maayan Silver is a WUWM news reporter.
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