Money Grubbing Sheriff

Earnell Lucas on Fox News urging people to “help law enforcement take back our neighborhoods” in May of 2020.

[UDPATE: The meeting happened Thursday June 17. Jason Haas put these items at the very end of the 31-item agenda, requiring everyone who wanted to testify to wait on the phone 7 hours for the chance. Only Ryan Clancy’s proposed right to council for eviction defense had as many public testimonies, Haas scheduled that as item 25. It passed. Haas also tried to invoke parliamentary rules to silence Clancy on the CART program. When that failed, he invented new rules. Willie Johnson Jr took over chair duties during the discussion of sheriff overtime. He refused to acknowledge at least one of the submitted eComments because it brought up the spurious origin of Ted Chisholm’s position as MCSO chief of staff. We’d counter that Chisholm gaining his position through nepotism and cronyism seems directly related to his inability to write an acceptable report.

The votes:
– For CART, only Clancy and Sequanna Taylor voted against creating three new sheriff positions. Chisholm brought in sheriff Lucas and Michael Lappen from BHD, who convinced the rest of the board that CART could not happen without giving MCSO $300,000 to add three deputy sheriff FTEs to the list of vacant deputy sheriff positions they cannot fill because so few people want to be deputy sheriffs.

-For overspending, Chisholm’s report was again rejected because the only “solution” to overtime overspending he proposed was everyone giving them more money. The vote was close: Clancy, Taylor, Liz Sumner, and Joseph Czarneski were in favor of rejecting the report. Haas, Johnson Jr, and Shawn Rolland wanted to let Ted Chisholm and MCSO off the hook.]

The people of Milwaukee want less of our money going to law enforcement, but county officials are letting sheriff Earnell Lucas rake it in. Unsatisfied with their generous budget, the Milwaukee county sheriff’s office (MCSO) has a habit of overspending on overtime. They’ve also worked to take in money allocated for mental health and tried to control the shift to more humane and effective approaches to public safety. Amidst all this resource-hoarding, Lucas is also working to silence his most vocal critic on the county board. 

You can fight back! The county board has an online finance committee meeting on June 17 at 9:30 am where these issues will be discussed. Sign up to testify here, or submit written comments in advance. The public testimony / comment system at the county board is circuitous and counterintuitive, likely by design to discourage participation.

[UPDATE: on Wednesday morning, less than 24 hours before the meeting time, the finance committee finally uploaded the agenda and opened eComments.

Finance chair Jason Haas set the two items related to the sheriff’s office inflicting economic damage items as 29 and 30. When you sign up to testify, the website will ask you what agenda items you’d like to speak on, put “29: CART program” if you want to speak on that, and “30: MCSO overtime” if you want to speak on that. Read on for details. Next, you’ll get a series of emails to confirm you actually intend to speak. Keep an eye on your email, especially between 9 and 9:30 Thursday morning.

Finance Chair Jason Haas set these items at the end of the agenda, which means they’ll come up late in the meeting, the exact time will depend on how long the previous 28 agenda items take to go through. Be prepared to login and keep yourself busy and your device charged while you wait.

The process for submitting written comments is also unnecessarily complex. You have to set up an account here, then go this page, scroll down to item 29, write a comment, then submit it. If you use impolite language, your comment will be rejected.]

Once you go through that rigamarole, you can use your 2 minutes of testimony or written comment to denounce sheriff Lucas, expose law enforcement, assert our defund demands, and wrench accountability from the county officials who’ve allowed the sheriff to take our money against our wishes. The rest of this article provides an abundance of backstory and details you can draw from when planning your testimony.

What to expect at the meeting

There are two items relating to MCSO funding on the meeting agenda. The first is a report on their overtime budget, which they consistently overspend on. The second is on the Crisis Assessment Response Team (CART) program, which replaces deputy sheriffs on some 911 calls with mental health clinicians. CART is a step in the right direction for public safety and decarceration, except that the program allows MCSO to take $300,000 from the mental health budget despite reducing reliance on the sheriff. 

The county board’s online meeting space.

Both of these items are layovers from the last finance committee meeting, where they faced strong public opposition. Among Milwaukee elected officials, county supervisor Ryan Clancy has been the most vocal proponent of defunding law enforcement. He is doing more than just raising objections. For example, Clancy has frequently been out in the streets and is suing the Milwaukee police and sheriff’s office because they improperly arrested him during the first night of Milwaukee’s George Floyd protests. Sheriff Earnell Lucas responded to the lawsuit by suggesting that Clancy has “forfeited his ability to be a fair and impartial arbiter […] on matters pertaining to the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office […] it would be a conflict of interest that would render the public unsafe.”

But who really has to worry about feeling unsafe here? Earnell Lucas’ employees attacked Ryan Clancy last summer. Cops singled him out, tackled him, bound his wrists and threw him in a police wagon. Now Lucas is suggesting that a person they attacked should not be allowed to participate in decisions related to his attackers. Lucas’ employees also attacked countless other protesters last summer and fall. His invocation of public safety while trying to silence opposition to the violence his office gives us a glimpse into the wildly fantastical logic of Milwaukee law enforcement.

The Overtime Fight

Last fall during the budget approval process, the county board conducted community surveys and respondents clearly favored reduced law enforcement funding. The county’s “balancing act” budget tool initially did not allow users to enter a decrease in police funding of more than 5%. Once this flaw was corrected, the survey results showed a public call for a 25% reduction in the sheriff’s budget. In response, Ryan Clancy proposed 15 amendments that would direct resources away from the sheriff’s office, primarily redistributing funds from their overtime budget. The rest of the board defied the will of the people, shot down all but one of those amendments, and expanded MCSO funding $150,000 above what county executive David Crowley had proposed. A few supervisors voted with Clancy on a few amendments, but many voted against all 15. 

Record of the MCSO’s out-of-control overtime spending.

The sheriff’s office has been carelessly overspending their overtime budget by more than 100% every year since at least 2015. Ryan Clancy did convince the board to require a report on curbing their overspending, which MCSO presented at the May finance meeting. Top to bottom, the report is deeply flawed. For starters, the MCSO chief of staff and author of the report is Ted Chisholm, the young son of district attorney John Chisholm who let killer cops Christopher Manney and Jospeh Mensah walk. Sheriff Lucas created this controversial position paying $85,000 per year for Chisholm, who also worked as his campaign manager. 

Accusations of cronyism and nepotism against Chisholm and Lucas are supported by the totally insufficient report supplied to the board. The four page document lacked detail or any suggestion of how the office intended to address its budgetary irresponsibility. Ironically, the letterhead it was printed on does say “we are held to a higher standard-and we ought to be proud” on the bottom of every page. Perhaps Chisholm thinks empty platitudes can make up for lack of real diligence. (The world of law enforcement is a fantastical place, isn’t it?)

Chisholm’s comments at the finance committee meeting revealed more departures from reality. He immediately started in by whining about a shortfall in revenues, specifically mentioning revenue from the phone service at the county jail. The MCSO revenues Chilsholm wants more of come from extorting their victims with tickets, fines, fees, and exorbitant surcharges. He also said the MCSO needs to exploit the overtime loophole because they cannot hire or retain staff. Unsurprisingly, after a summer of unprecedented warfare between law enforcement and the general public, few people want to be deputy sheriffs. 

Of course, in Ted’s fantasy world, the solution to Earnell Lucas’s overspending is to simply give him more of our money. Can we imagine any other department behaving this way? Of course not, but the sheriff’s office is not accountable to the county board or any higher authority. Our only option is to vote Lucas out next election and cross our fingers that his replacement won’t also take advantage of opportunities to spend beyond their budget. Whatever their letterhead says, it seems the sheriff’s office is actually held to the lowest standard.

The committee voted unanimously to reject Chisholm’s lousy report and required him to present a new one before the June 17 meeting. [Update: Chisholm did not send the new report to the county board until Tuesday evening, less than 48 hours before the hearing was scheduled. This new report still proposes the only solution to MCSO’s overtime problem is to give them more money. In order to have as many deputy sheriffs on the streets and parks in Milwaukee harassing and attacking people as sheriff Lucas deems necessary, they have to either use overtime or increase pay to lure more people into this violent, shameful line of employment.

Grabbing Cash from Mental Health 

During last fall’s budget process, MCSO was also hitting up the mental health board (MHB) to try and take some money intended for people struggling with the strains of living in a racist and authority-loving city like Milwaukee. Again, chief of staff Ted Chisholm was there to make the pitch. He spoke of long negotiations with Michael Lappen, administrator of the Behavioral Health Division (BHD), to establish a team of mental health clinicians who will accompany deputy sheriffs on calls. 

Ted Chisholm, encouraging speculation about his dad running for governor back in 2017. 

This program is called the Crisis Assessment Response Team, or CART, and it is very popular with the mental health board, because it reduces the amount of state violence inflicted upon the population they serve. The Milwaukee and West Allis police departments have previously taken BHD funding for CART programs and found, “that 80 percent of the time, CART is able to provide an outcome that does not result in an Emergency Detention.” 

In other parts of the country, programs that go further than CART have had even greater successes. In Eugene, OR the CAHOOTS program has been diverting mental health related calls entirely away from police for 31 years, leading to a great reduction in costs and violence against people experiencing crisis. A new program in Denver called STAR diverted almost 1,400 emergency 911 calls away from the police in their first year. STAR’s mental health clinicians handled every single call without needing to refer back to the police even once. 

In Wisconsin, we adopt half measures and allow law enforcement to use those half measures to expand their funding. At the recent finance meeting, Clancy spoke about three options, sending two cops, which is current MCSO practice, sending one cop and one clinician, and sending two clinicians. According to Michael Lappen from BHD, “Wisconsin is one of two states where law enforcement has primary responsibility to take people into custody who are in mental health emergency” (at 4:51). People seem to think this law prevents the CART program from taking mental health crisis response entirely out of law enforcement’s hands, but based on the models used by CAHOOTS and STAR, people are rarely or never taken into custody. In a rare instance that the clinicians would want to take someone into custody, they could simply call law enforcement back in. So, unless there’s some other law preventing it, CART could be join these more effective programs and only send mental health clinicians to mental health calls.

Lappen also said that the CART program is a way to provide “relief to emergency services, and avoid police contacts, emergency detentions and what-not.” By replacing cops with clinicians, CART reduces the actual need for law enforcement. But in the upside-down fantasy world of Milwaukee law enforcement logic, that’s not how the program plays out. Instead of reducing the number of cops and directing money from their budgets to pay the clinicians that are relieving them of work, Milwaukee’s CART program hires more cops and takes money from mental health funding to pay them. This is the opposite of what makes sense and the opposite of what the public demands, but most members of both the mental health and county supervisor’s boards seem happy to oblige. 

Ted Chisholm, all grown up, in a suit, earning $85,000 a year to regurgitate empty platitudes.

When testifying before the MHB, Ted Chisholm said he’s been negotiating with Lappen since early 2019. He started out by describing MCSO’s “considerable resource challenges.” In other words, their extortion short-falls. He also claimed that the sheriff’s office was functioning on “bare resources needed to fund [their] current constitutional, statutory, and county mandates.” Later, MHB member Brenda Wesley said she had pitched CART to the sheriff’s office previously, and both Chisholm and Lucas were “adamantly opposed” to it (at 14:14). She asked Chisholm, “what shifted your thinking?”

“I think our concern was never philosophical […]” Chisholm replied, “the concern was really a resource-based concern, and I think over the past year as we’ve assessed where we need to invest in new partnerships […] programming like CART […] is the route to go right now and into the future.” He also described MCSO partnering with the Waukesha National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) to access grant money for deputy sheriff training.

Mary Neubauer followed up to ask why MCSO partnered with NAMI Waukesha for training instead of Milwaukee partners. Chisholm said that the partnership with NAMI stemmed from a state department of justice grant, and that Waukesha NAMI had provided training to Ozaukee county sheriff’s office. Wesley emphasized that training provided by Milwaukee organizations was designed with addressing the city’s specific issues with racial disparities in mind. Chisholm responded at length but without substance, “we fully agree and as an agency we are committed to eradicating the systemic racism […] and also deeply committed to authenticity in training. I completely agree, it’s very important, critical that the individuals providing law enforcement with training are credible in the communities [targeted by] law enforcement.” He said some other nice words about cultural competency, but offered no actual explanation for why Milwaukee sheriff’s first went to Ozaukee county, one of Wiscsonin’s most conservative and racist communities, to find training advice. 

In the end, Ted Chisholm’s long-suffering complaints and emphasis on MCSO’s “resource-based” decision-making made it effectively clear that if the mental health board wants a CART program, they’ll need to pay the sheriff’s office for it. 

Massive Defund the Police street mural on Water street during the summer of 2020.

Take Action for June 17

Unfortunately for Ted Chisholm, the MHB and county board are also subject to public scrutiny and critique. CART program funding also needs to be approved by the county board, which means the general public has an opportunity to say what we think about sheriff Lucas taking more of our money, and especially taking it from those of us who most need to be protected from the violence of law enforcement. Approving the CART program was on the agenda back on May 13. Clancy argued for approval, pending an amendment that would repair the funding problem. He said CART should be paid for this year and into the future by MCSO, not mental health money. CART has been proven effective by the Milwaukee and West Allis police departments as well as national organizations. “All we’re asking law enforcement to do is pay for the law enforcement half of it,” he argued, “and to abolish the law enforcement positions that are no longer necessary.” 

He offered to draft a quick amendment correcting the funding problem before the meeting ended. Committee chair Jason Haas chuckled at Clancy’s suggestion and turned the motion into a simple layover “for more information” until the upcoming June 17 meeting. Supervisor Willie Johnson Jr, whose district includes Harambee, Riverwest, North Division, and other police-targeted neighborhoods, opposed these suggestions. He spoke to the virtues of the CART program, but offered no explanation for why he prefers mental health funding go to hiring deputy sheriffs rather than providing mental health services, other than it already being in place that way. The vote to layover passed 4 to 3, with Haas casting the deciding vote after taking a long, strained pause.

That means we have a chance to influence this outcome. The MHB is meeting the morning of June 17. You can email them at MHB@milwaukeecountywi.gov and demand that they support MCSO taking on CART funding and abolishing officers rather than adding more. You can then attend the county board finance committee and call out Earnell Lucas for his wasteful overtime spending and grabbing at mental health funds. Members of both the mental health board and the county board are likely worried that sheriff Lucas will withdraw from or sabotage the CART program if he isn’t getting funds out of it, but the decision ultimately belongs to the people. With enough public outcry this week, we can either redirect this funding now, or at least ensure that next budget cycle, Earnell Lucas and DA Chisholm’s kid will keep their crooked hands off our money.

This article benefited greatly by research and mobilization done by members of the Milwaukee DSA Abolition Working Group. If you’re interested in joining the working group, email defundpolicemkedsa@gmail.com.

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