Earnell Lucas begins his term looking to ‘restore honor, integrity and trust’ in the office.
Earnell Lucas is the first elected sheriff of Milwaukee County since 15-year incumbent and nationally known firebrand David Clarke resigned in August 2017. Lucas, 60, took office in January, coming to the department from Major League Baseball, where he was chief liaison of security and investigations. Before that, Lucas spent 25 years in the Milwaukee Police Department.
Lucas sat down with Milwaukee Magazine at the newly opened Crossroads Collective, a 10-minute drive from his home near UW-Milwaukee’s Downer Woods. Friendly but guarded, Lucas spoke in a rhythm that revealed reflexes honed over a long campaign season. An opponent of Clarke’s administration, Lucas must find a way to implement his agenda with markedly fewer resources – the Sheriff’s Office budget in 2019 is set at $45.5 million, down from the $59.2 million spent during Clarke’s last year as sheriff.
You enter office following the larger-than-life figure of David Clarke. Are you consciously trying to be different?
I am focused on doing the very best job I can for the people of Milwaukee County. People spoke loudly during the election that they wanted change, and that I was the candidate that best represented that change. I’m going to go in and put my head down, roll up my sleeves and work with the members of the Sheriff ’s Office, elected officials and residents to build a strong and a safe Milwaukee County.
One of your first moves was to appoint an all-female executive team. Denita Ball is chief deputy sheriff, Faithe Colas is director of public affairs and community engagement and Molly Zillig is the office’s first-ever chief legal and compliance officer. Was that a conscious decision?
My intent was to find the best and the brightest to help me, and to restore honor and integrity to the Sheriff ’s Office. The three individuals that stepped forward happen to be professionals and accomplished in their own respective fields, and they happened to be women. I’m so proud of that fact.
Do you feel honor and integrity were lacking?
Law enforcement is a noble profession, and we are held to a high standard. I feel those standards were not being lived up to and that new leadership was necessary to restore honor, integrity and trust back in the organization.
Is there anything you’ve learned about the reality of being sheriff you didn’t realize in the campaign?
(laughs) Quite frankly, people have a lot of expectations, particularly here in Milwaukee County, given the past sheriff. I have said to people that I am but one person, and I don’t want the public to expect that I can do everything. But if we work together, collectively we can solve a lot of the issues we have within our organization as well as within our community.
Sheriff’s Office by the numbers
Earnell Lucas’ place in the line of succession since the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office began in 1835. (His immediate predecessor, Richard Schmidt, doesn’t make the official count because he was acting sheriff.)
Estimated population of Milwaukee County
Number of core missions for which the Sheriff’s Office is responsible: county roads and freeways, the courthouse, the jail, the county park system and General Mitchell International Airport
The target for traffic citations issued by the Sheriff’s Office for 2019 – an average of almost 88 per day
Projected number of evictions in 2019, which are carried out by sheriff’s deputies
Projected number of daily inmates in the Milwaukee County Jail in 2019. The rated capacity is 972, but a court ruling places the maximum at 960 inmates.
Sources: Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office budget, U.S. Census Bureau
One early challenge you’ll face concerns your budget. You’ve said you cannot pledge to run a deficit-free department in 2019. How do you plan to run the office?
I’m going to work hard to restore resources toward the level where I feel we can provide a level of service that’s needed here in Milwaukee County.
We cannot continue to say we can’t afford to do these things. We can no longer not afford to do these things. Whether it’s in the patrol function, in the court, in the parks, we need more resources. But also if we’re going to stay up-to-date with the latest technology, we’ve got to start making those investments so that we can get adequate equipment, the proper training so we can do an effective job making Milwaukee County strong and safe.
You were severely wounded when you were a police officer, and you’ve survived two battles with cancer. Have those brushes with mortality shaped your outlook on life?
No question. My story is one of a boy who was born in the Hillside housing project in the 1950s where a number of families migrated from the South to Milwaukee. Until I was 11, I was raised by a single mother, and upon her death was raised by a single grandmother who was a domestic in rural Alabama. She sold everything she had worked for, including her home, to come here to Milwaukee to raise three young boys. I’m a product of the Milwaukee Public Schools system, and I know what it’s like to not have hope or not know what tomorrow might bring.
But I’m hopeful and optimistic that I can bring change to this community, to some young boy or girl who, like myself, find themselves in very challenging situations. I want to do that with what time I have left. I heard a call and said it’s time for me to come and do this.
Are you saying you were motivated to run for sheriff because of your faith?
No question. The faith of what having someone believe in you can do. The faith of what a chance in life is.
As a 12- or 13-year-old boy, I was walking to a grocery store in my neighborhood – I lived on the corner of Second and Burleigh – with a note and $20. I was encountered by a white police officer who never got out of his squad car. He looked at me and said, “You stole a woman’s purse.” He said, “I’m going to run you over and have the woman identify you.” I said, “You can do that, but if she doesn’t identify me you’re going to run me back over to this grocery store and help me get these groceries home.” In a moment that officer sped away thinking, this has got to be the most naive 12- or 13-year-old in Milwaukee, and whatever he’s got, I don’t want it.
Fast forward, I graduate high school in June of 1976. I start at the police department in October 1976. I get assigned to the station in the neighborhood where I grew up.
On the first day, as I’m walking through the assembly room at that station, I see that very officer who I encountered as a young boy, and I walked up to him and asked that question that none of us like to be asked: Hey, do you remember me? He says no. I went on to tell him the story of how much he had impacted me.
That’s the power of the lessons and impact of people on your lives, whether it’s the officer or the grandmother or the many other people who have affected me along my journey.
You tell that story a lot, and it’s clearly formative. Now that you oversee deputies’ interactions with the public, how should that encounter have happened?
When you look at the story that I tell and the encounters that young men and women of color, immigrant communities and the like have today with law enforcement, the results are vastly different. You had a young man who had respect for law enforcement, had no reason to fear law enforcement and thus I engaged that officer full well knowing that I hadn’t committed any crime and had no reason to run or hide.
Contrast that with today and some of the incidents that we see. That trust is not there any longer, in part due to things as a society that we’ve done to break away from law enforcement but also [due] in part to things that have caused law enforcement to move away from society.
I can’t control what’s in a man’s heart or a woman’s mind. But what I can do is that for the eight, 10 or 12 hours they’re under my employ, I can ensure that they’re going to treat everyone with dignity and respect and they’re going to adhere to the high standards of our profession. And if not, there’s going to be consequences. There’s going to be swift action taken and it’s going to be very public to ensure that we’re policing our own, if you will, as well as addressing those issues that have caused law enforcement and the community that they serve to step away from one another. I’m hoping to bring us back together. I’m confident that we can, and we will. But it’s a journey. It’s not one step.