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Milwaukee Jail Death Inquest Sorting Through Accountability Within Sheriff's Department

Michael Sears / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
A still photo of inmates being fed was shown during the questioning of corrections officer Brian Dragoo at the Terrill Thomas inquest.

While national reports indicate the Dept. of Homeland Security may be thinking of hiring Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, the inquest continues this week into the death of Terrill Thomas, who died of dehydration in the county jail. He was one of four people who died there, in about a year's time. UWM Criminal Justice Prof. Stan Stojkovic says it is unlikely Clarke will face criminal charges, but other issues of wrong-doing could settle around him because the state constitution puts responsibility for the jail directly on the shoulders of the sheriff.

"This (the four deaths) raises some questions about – what’s happening in the jail. As a lay person, you want to know that your jail is not being a place where individuals are just dying, and if they are dying, why are they dying.

"So one has to ask questions about how are they running the jail, what’s happening there and most importantly, what are the specifics associated with each case. Is there some theme that sort of cuts through them, for example, is it employee poor training, is it an issue of just being too crowded? Is it an issue of management and or supervision of staff? All these things have to be asked," Stojkovic says.

Stojkovic says there appears to him, to be smoke, so the DA must investigate - was there any criminal wrongdoing, yet there could be other implications for civil wrongdoing and civil liability, down the road.

The professor says, while it is unlikely the sheriff would face criminal charges, he may still be held accountable in some other fashion because the buck stops with him.

"The ultimate decision is at the ballot box, by the citizenry. Their assessment of his performance and he’s been sheriff a number of years and they have voted him in. His elections have been fairly close but the fact of the matter is, that is the ultimate assessment.

"But on another level, if there is some gross negligence or some deliberate indifference toward the needs of people who are incarcerated in the jail, the sheriff is responsible, under federal and or state law, and, as as result, there has to be accountability in that regard, so there may be multiple levels of accountability here." Stojkovic says.

Stojkovic says while Clarke and other sheriffs may spend time helping other candidates campaign or focus on patrolling the freeways or parks, one primary responsibility of a Wisconsin sheriff is to run the jail.

"There are very few things that are mandated by the state constitution, but one of them that is very clear, that is left to the sheriff – and the liability cannot be sold or transferred or given to someone else, is running the jail. That is one of his primary responsibilities as an elected sheriff. This is where 90% of the lawsuits in sheriff’s departments come from – jails.

"The sheriff cannot shirk this responsibility. He has to take some responsibility, at some level for this, and we’ll see how that plays out," Stojkovic says.

Ann-Elise is WUWM's news director.
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