Unaccountable sheriff refuses to disclose requested data

Ted Chisholm, MCSO toady.

There is an audio version of this article, which should also be available anywhere you can subscribe to podcasts. If you cannot find it on your preferred ap, contact abolishmke@protonmail.com.

[UPDATE: the finance committee meeting was postponed to Monday July 26, because of a sport, and Chisholm’s newest report has appeared. ]

Milwaukee county sheriff, Earnell Lucas has been breaking the law for the last few months. County ordinance 56.02 requires that government agencies with projections of a “deficit of at least one hundred thousand dollars ($100,000.00) or an overtime deficit of at least one million dollars ($1,000,000.00)” must file a report that “shall include the reasons for the anticipated deficit, as well as a recommended plan of action or alternatives to offset such deficit.” Earnell Lucas has exceeded the $3 million sheriff’s office (MCSO) overtime budget by at least three times a million every year, without filing adequate reports as required, by law. 

As abolitionists, we don’t much care for laws, but we also despise law enforcement hypocrisy. We have found that, when it comes to following, rather than enforcing them, cops and sheriffs don’t much care for laws either. 

For the last two months MCSO chief of staff, Ted Chisholm (who is also the son of Milwaukee district attorney John Chisholm and sheriff Lucas’ former campaign manager) has helped sheriff Earnell Lucas dodge the responsibilities of ordinance 56.02. In May, Chisholm sent the finance committee an evasive report that failed to satisfy the law, and every member of the committee voted to reject it. In June, he came back with an updated report. We’ll describe these reports and associated committee meetings in some detail below, but for now, a summary. Chisholm’s second report insisted the only solution to the sheriff’s office spending more money than the people budgeted for them is that the people must budget more money to pay them better. In other words, they are going to keep taking our money until we voluntarily give it to them. 

That argument somehow convinced supervisors Jason Haas, Willie Johnson Jr, and Shawn Rolland to vote in favor of accepting the report. Fortunately, there are seven members of the committee, and the other four aren’t craven bootlickers. Chisholm’s report was again rejected. He is expected to provide a third version to the finance committee on this Thursday, though there is no updated report attached to that meeting agenda. [UPDATE 7/21- the meeting has been pushed back to Monday the 26th, and Chisholm’s newest report is now available with an addendum. This new report makes the same argument as the previous report, but finally provides a glimmer of insight. More detail on all the reports later in this article.]

At the June meeting, supervisor Ryan Clancy offered to help Chisholm out. He worked with constituents to make a list of what might constitute a satisfactory report. He sent this list to Chisholm. Last Thursday we reached out to the finance committee co-chairs (Haas and Johnson Jr) and to Clancy, to see if any progress has been made on the report. Clancy is the only one who replied, forwarding a message in which Chisholm “respectfully declines” to satisfy his request for information. Here’s his email:

Good afternoon Supervisor Clancy:

As we are not a legislative reference bureau, we respectfully decline to conduct extensive operational research falling outside the scope of a Board file pertaining narrowly to deficit and overtime projections. Furthermore, information dating prior to January 7, 2019 would, inherently, fall outside the scope of any presentation that we might make, as the present sheriff’s administration is hardly responsible for the actions of past agency leaders.

With that said, our report to the Board in the July cycle will be forthright, factual, and descriptive, as have been our prior communications on this subject.

Thanks,

Ted

Chisholm’s prior communications have absolutely not been forthright, factual, or descriptive. Below we’ll track some tedious details of his evasions and duplicities. For now, a reminder will serve. Cops lie. Their lies are frequent, legally permitted, and can have terrible consequences. Chisholm, like most cops seems to believe that simply saying something emphatically makes it true. For example, the bottom of every page of MCSO letterhead says “WE ARE HELD TO A HIGHER STANDARD –AND WE OUGHT TO BE PROUD.” They are, in fact, held to an abysmally low standard. No other county department would dare spend double their overtime budget every single year and insist the only solution is giving them more money. No entity in amerika, private or public, is as protected from accountability when their staff kills people as law enforcement.

There is a simple solution to MCSO’s staffing and overtime budget problems. They can reduce the scope of their work and their staffing levels. The people or Milwaukee do not want to pay them to do much of what they do. That’s the fundamental complaint behind the demand to defund law enforcement. Chisholm responded to this solution in his second report, with another emphatic, but unsupported statement: “it is important here to dispense with the fiction that overtime expenditures associated with core public safety services are unnecessary or wasteful. Nothing could be further from the truth.” The information Ryan Clancy requested is the evidence that would either prove or disprove this claim. Chisholm “respectfully declined” to provide that evidence, but you can help us get it.

Take action 

As always, you can sign up to testify on Thursday or submit an ecomment talking shit on Ted Chisholm (though you can’t use the kind of language he deserves, because the form is a real prude.) Additionally, the sheriff’s office is required to comply with state public records law. That means anyone can request the information that Chisholm declined to provide. What would happen if a dozen or more people filed public information requests asking for the same thing Clancy had asked for? Let’s do some paperwrenching and find out.

The MCSO provides two ways to file record requests on their website. Unsurprisingly, they both suck. Their online form only allows your request to be 300 characters long. They also have a PDF form you can fill out and email to them, but fitting the information unto that form is tedious. We tried and here’s how it turned out:

Ugly, right?

You can either fill try to fill in that form, or just send your request via regular email to MCSOopenrecords@milwaukeecountywi.gov. It probably wouldn’t hurt to cc Ted Chisholm on that, he’s at: Theodore.Chisholm@milwaukeecountywi.gov.

You can request any records you’d like. Here’s what Clancy sent, feel free to repeat any information he asked for, and if you’re in too much a hurry to write your own, just copy and paste it.

For each of these, to the extent possible, we would ask for the last four years of data (2017 through 2020) and the YTD totals for 2021. If data isn’t available through June, backing up a few months is fine.

-Homicide investigations, hours and dollars spent
-Violent crime, hours and dollars
-Protests / marches, hours and dollars
-Evictions, hours and dollars
-Drone unit: differences in scope between OEM and MCSO units, date of creation, # of staff trained, hours and dollars -Breakdown by type of infraction (I believe the intent here was the charge or violation), hours and dollars
-Breakdown by race and gender (it’s not clear to me if this was based on initial interactions or detentions, but both would likely be helpful), hours and dollars
-Interactions by neighborhood, hours and dollars
-Breakdown of interactions by section of the freeway (again not sure if this is initial contacts or charges; both would be appreciated)
-Testifying in cases, hours and dollars
-Jail population
-Jail hours and dollars
-Breakdown of overtime hours triggered by exceeding 8 hours a day as opposed to 40 hours per week
-A walkthrough of how often overtime hours are compiled and reviewed internally, and by which positions
-Vacancy rates
-Freeway traffic (I think the query here was how much general use of the freeways has fallen during COVID, if it has, though I’m not sure if that’s data you keep internally)

If you get anything back from MCSO, please share with us at abolishmke@protonmail.com. We’ve started collecting information by other means and hope to do an article that really breaks it down sooner or later. Friends at African American Roundtable and the DSA abolition working group are giving Milwaukee police department the same scrutiny going into their budget process. 

Unnecessary or wasteful?

We expect the evidence, once we wrench it out of MCSO and MPD’s grip will be quite compelling. Law enforcement agencies that have given up data on how they spend their time reveal that surprisingly little of what they do involves addressing violent crime. The New York Times recently compiled statistics from such departments and found that in many cities, less than 1% of calls to police are for violent crimes. Most of their time is spent on “noncriminal calls”, monitoring traffic, and the dubious practice of “proactive policing” which we addressed during our snitch house series. The Vera Institute has compiled massive amounts of nationwide data and produced an arrest trends tool showing how frequently police engage in arrests, how racially targeted they are, how often they victimize people, and how bad they are at solving crimes, or releasing data about their activities.  

We suspect Milwaukee county is not some kind of freakish outlier in these regards. Chisholm and Lucas love to cite rising homicide rates, without readily disclosing how little of their time is spent really doing anything about homicide. Like most law enforcement agencies, they probably believe that all their patrols, municipal citations, and, “community oriented” efforts count as violent crime prevention. 

For example, MCSO recently went out and lured kids into their trust by giving away bicycles. They probably believe this prevents crime, or at least helps them recruit snitches who might later help them investigate crimes. Studies show that’s wishful thinking at best. For example, researchers found that after the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles, community oriented policing “amplified—rather than resolved—racial tensions, complicating partnership efforts, crime response and prevention, and accountability.” 

Look at these predatory creeps!

Another way that law enforcement often spends their time is issuing municipal citations. These are fines for minor, non-criminal infractions, and cops do a lot of them, because they are a large source of revenue. A national, critical examination of law enforcement dependence on these “forms of revenue” emerged after the DOJ report on Ferguson detailed the practices in one St Louis suburb that burned because cops killed Michael Brown in 2014. If you like jokes, you can watch John Oliver talk about municipal violations, or you can read anarchist anthropologist David Graeber describe them accurately, as a shake-down operation: 

The police spend very little of their time dealing with violent criminals—indeed, police sociologists report that only about 10% of the average police officer’s time is devoted to criminal matters of any kind. Most of the remaining 90% is spent dealing with infractions of various administrative codes and regulations: all those rules about how and where one can eat, drink, smoke, sell, sit, walk, and drive. If two people punch each other, or even draw a knife on each other, police are unlikely to get involved. Drive down the street in a car without license plates, on the other hand, and the authorities will show up instantly, threatening all sorts of dire consequences if you don’t do exactly what they tell you.

The police, then, are essentially just bureaucrats with weapons. Their main role in society is to bring the threat of physical force—even, death—into situations where it would never have been otherwise invoked, such as the enforcement of civic ordinances about the sale of untaxed cigarettes.

This description matches the daily experience of many people in Milwaukee, especially on the northside. We also know the MCSO is engaged in this practice to at least some degree, because Ted Chisholm talks about it, albeit indirectly, in his reports and comments before the committee. He described “unanticipated shortfalls in projected (and budgeted) revenue, most notably revenue drop-offs associated with the COVID-19 public health emergency.” Later he described MCSO’s projected $970,000 deficit as “merely a mid-year projection that does not take into account a number of known ameliorating factors, including that the collection of certain forms of revenue in the second half of 2021 is anticipated to outpace collection in the first half.”

He’s saying that Earnell Lucas’ sheriff deputies plan on extorting extra lots of money to make up for all the money they couldn’t take from us when we were locked down on account of the pandemic. Sounds a lot like another passage from David Graeber: “the criminal justice system perceives a large part of that city’s population not as citizens to be protected, but as potential targets for what can only be described as a shake-down operation designed to wring money out of the poorest and most vulnerable by any means they could […] in many municipalities, as much as 40% of the money governments depend on comes from the kinds of predatory policing that has become a fact of life for the citizens of Ferguson.”

If Ted Chisholm and Earnell Lucas believe routinely threatening people with public execution to extract fines and fees from them is an essential, constitutionally mandated part of their mission, they should prove it. They should release the data of how deputies spend their time and validate it. Then the public can have an honest discussion about whether or not we agree. Instead, Chisholm, Lucas, and their supporters just repeat their claims as fact, again and again, like stubborn children. 

Forthright, factual, and descriptive

Let’s look a little closer. Chisholm’s first report, in May, detailed how MCSO routinely overspends on overtime (at least doubling the budgeted amount every year since 2015). Then it discussed different ways the office may end up exceeding its budget, like the above mentioned revenues from issuing fines and bilking people on jail phone calls. They also hoped to gain access to funds from the recovery act (ARPA), just like they had taken federal COVID-19 relief (CARES act) money last year. 

County ordinance 56.02 requires that MCSO provide a “recommended plan of action or alternatives,” but Chisholm broke that law, instead using his report to insist that “recognition of the preliminary and tentative nature of the above projections… is critical.” Yes, Ted, the finance committee understands what the word “projection” means, thank you. He even offered an interesting example, “in 2021, for instance, despite initially projecting a surplus barely exceeding $100,000, MCSO instead ended the fiscal year with a surplus exceeding $12 million.” That surplus came almost entirely from CARES funds, Chisholm explained: “when CARES-related reimbursements were removed, a surplus exceeding $200,000 [remained].” 

In other words, last year county sheriffs predicted they would have $100,000 left over, then they (an organization who spent much of 2020 attacking the people of Milwaukee at protests against them and their ilk) took at least $12 million in federal money that was intended to help people who were harmed during the pandemic year. Then they reported a big budget surplus.

Check out those fancy little outfits.

So, the sheriff’s office has an overtime deficit because they always have an overtime deficit, but maybe, if they can get their hands on federal money that was intended to help people survive the pandemic again, it’ll work out fine. He didn’t explain why they rack up so much overtime, or outline any plan to stop doing so. It doesn’t seem like the sheriff actually intends to stop overspending on overtime. They just plan to make it up by taking more money from us. 

The updated report filed in June again failed to satisfy the law and the finance committee. This time, Chisholm blamed excessive overtime on understaffing. He shared that, “as of pay period 11, only 629 of 718 positions budgeted within MCSO were filled by actual employees.” The sheriff can’t hire as many deputies as he wants. He could reduce scope of work and need for deputies, as the public demanded last year with frequent, massive protests, but instead, sheriff Lucas chooses to force the employees he does have to work overtime and make up the hours. This contributes to what Chisholm called “a vicious cycle […] causing remaining personnel to work more and more hours of overtime, which leads in turn to further departures.” He then said, “the most efficacious plan of action in mitigating further overtime expenditures will be a County-wide effort to increase the retention of law enforcement and correctional officers […] a critical component of this strategy will involve increasing compensation.” 

MCSO won’t solve their problem. They need us to solve the problem for them, by paying them more money.

The meeting where that report was presented was a ridiculous shit-show. The agenda was not posted until the night before, and committee chair Jason Haas put the two items about the sheriff’s office at the very end of a day-long agenda, even though many members of the public had registered to testify on them. People spent seven hours waiting for a chance to testify on Chisholm’s report and the MCSO’s unfortunately successful effort to create three sheriff positions using mental health money. When that item came up, Haas tried to use procedural bureaucracy to silence committee member Ryan Clancy. The clerk explained that rules didn’t permit that, so Hass just talked over Clancy and insisted the meeting move forward. It was embarrassing, and Haas later apologized. 

When Chisholm’s second report came up, Clancy pointed out that MCSO would have easily gotten under the budget if Earnell Lucas hadn’t chosen to go out and attack protesters across the county last summer. He introduced the motion to again reject the report, saying, “I would love to get a report that has actual action, because three months from now, I don’t know how to reconvene and look at a status report on this.” County ordinance 56.02 requires that departments with deficits do a progress report in three months, but since Chisholm offered no plan to solve the sheriff office’s fiscal irresponsibility, a status report would be meaningless. 

Ted Chisholm’s only response was to once again emphatically repeat baseless claims. He insisted that the report does meet the ordinance, and insisted that “the plan of remediation that will work is compensation increases for corrections officers and deputy sheriffs […] our office has, we have exhausted our ability to provide information without simply repeating ourselves on this point.” It’s funny, because MCSO is not the only department of the county government having financial problems, they’re just the only department who refuses to address them internally. 

Earlier in the meeting, the Milwaukee County Zoo had to file their own 56.02 report because the pandemic severely disrupted their operations. The report included a corrective action plan. They put a freeze on expenditures, held positions vacant, even though COVID caused increased workload with cleaning and monitoring building capacities. They limited overtime, but were unable to hire seasonal help, had to shut down some of operations, and get creative. They developed virtual programs, sought community support, and expanded fall programming to recover from lost spring and summer revenues. They didn’t exaggerate the impact on their mission, they didn’t insist the only solution was paying them all better so they could hire more people, and they didn’t refuse to disclose requested information. Curiously, the Zoo’s report was printed on plain paper, not colorful letterhead with “we are held to a higher standard” printed on each page.

[UPDATE 7/21: Chisholm’s newest report claims that the sheriff’s office is special, “as an independent constitutional officer [the sheriff] exercises broad autonomy and discretion in
expending those funds necessary to perform his or her duties.” He compares starting wages for Milwaukee sheriff deputies to other counties to drive home his argument that we should pay his staff more. He complains that “staffing levels are so low that the agency must routinely decide whether to fill vacant positions on each shift through overtime or simply allow them to sit vacant.” Most importantly, Chisholm finally admits that they’ve used “tight regulations” and “taking the calculated risk not to fill certain positions on certain shifts when activity levels may permit” to reduce the use of overtime.

They are enacting the obvious solution, while insisting it is not a viable solution. “Simply reducing the duties performed,” Chisholm wrote, “is not an option to curb the agency’s overtime.” But… it is, they are doing it. Of course, he warns that this approach is “risking insufficient staffing to resolve critical public safety emergencies.” What he does not do, is offer a breakdown of how sheriff deputies actually spend their time. Clearly they are still “collecting revenue” via enforcement of municipal violations, and they are still doing saturation patrols of parks in communities of color. Hopefully, these are some of the positions they leave vacant, but we don’t know because Chisholm refuses to provide that information. Instead, he portrays the sheriff deputies as though they are responding to dire emergencies all day every day. Which they are not.

The addendum he sent does provide some breakdown of where overtime hours are occurring. In 2021, the 42,524 of the 59,721 overtime hours were used by the county jail division. As we have described repeatedly, holding human beings in cages is a trauma that only sadists will enjoy. If the people of Milwaukee do not want to spend more money luring people into taking that atrocious job, the people of Milwaukee are righteous. Most people held in the county jail are awaiting trial. Helping the Milwaukee Freedom Fund abolish cash bail would be the best way to reduce the number of people suffering in jail, and thus the number of people unhappily working as their jailers.

https://scontent-ort2-1.xx.fbcdn.net/v/t1.6435-9/104410756_120107489735174_6870762325013202812_n.jpg?_nc_cat=105&ccb=1-3&_nc_sid=cdbe9c&_nc_ohc=jby-r_nLFpIAX8cUIZO&_nc_ht=scontent-ort2-1.xx&oh=cd67c427aee039907cd33fa904394d57&oe=60FD0B2A

Court services are a distant second for overtime expenses, and patrols come third. Patrols are when deputies issue tickets or arrest people. Courts are where people fight those tickets and arrests. Jail is where people go while awaiting trial or serving sentences of less than 1 year issued by the courts, sometimes for not being able to pay tickets. In other words, the vast majority of MCSO’s overtime comes from handling work that sheriff deputies and other law enforcement officers create for themselves.

The people of Milwaukee want to defund the police. We want a new approach to public safety that does not involve sheriff deputies patrolling parks and neighborhoods with weapons, extorting fines from people, arresting them, holding them in the jail and dragging them through court. These areas that make up the majority of MCSO’s overtime expenses are exactly the areas we want to shrink. No wonder Chisholm has been so cagey about releasing even this small amount of data he’s given up.]

The agenda, testimony, and ecomments forms for [UPDATE: 9:30 Monday] are available now. Scroll down to item 7 to comment on MCSO’s failings. While you’re there, you can also pause and submit a quick eComment in favor of item 2, which is a $50 COVID vaccine incentive program at the county jail and house of corrections. 

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