Earnell Lucas began his career with the City of Milwaukee Police Department in 1976, and retired after 25 years as a captain.  In 2002 he began a second career at Major League Baseball, where he rose quickly to become Head of Security.  In 2018, Lucas was elected sheriff of Milwaukee County.

Sheriff Lucas spoke with PERF Executive Director Chuck Wexler on Friday about the Democratic National Convention (which started yesterday and runs until Thursday), keeping COVID-19 out of his jail, reforming a troubled law enforcement agency, and the challenges of putting on the baseball season. 

Democratic National Convention: Preparing for Every Contingency We Can Imagine

Chuck Wexler: How have you been planning for the Democratic National Convention?

Sheriff Earnell Lucas:  It has evolved from how political conventions have historically taken place by going virtual. But there’s still concern about what may happen in and around the convention center. I think we’re challenged more than in past years, because there are so many unknowns.

The planning has gone forward, and we’ve worked to study every contingency. We’re hopeful that we’ll successfully execute the plan that has been developed by all the involved agencies, and have a successful convention.

Wexler:  What will still be happening in Milwaukee during this virtual convention?

Sheriff Lucas:  The convention center will open Monday, and the convention will be gaveled open by the mayor of Milwaukee. And a number of events taking place around the country will be managed by people behind the scenes here in Milwaukee. So that’s what’s happening on the inside.

We  have concerns about what may happen outside the convention hall, given where we are as a country and what has happened at past conventions. So we’re preparing for every contingency.

Wexler:  Are many people coming to Milwaukee?

Sheriff Lucas:  Some members of the Democratic National Committee will be here. The operational “brain” of the convention will still be here in the convention center. And a number of people will make speeches from the floor of the convention center. 

Wexler: Are you anticipating demonstrations?

Sheriff Lucas:  I would be remiss if I didn’t. We have prepared for demonstrations, but we aren’t expecting anything that we haven’t been able to prepare for. We’re working with our intelligence staff to get timely, accurate information to plan and prepare our resources. Yes, we are preparing for demonstrations, but we’re hoping the convention will go off relatively uneventfully.


COVID-19: We Saw It Coming in Late 2019

Wexler:  Sheriff, how big is your jail, and what steps have you been taking to protect your inmates and staff from COVID?

Sheriff Lucas:  By consent decree, the maximum number of inmates we can house is 960.  We took the threat of the virus seriously even before it reached the United States. At the end of last year, we were monitoring the developments. As we came back from the holiday break and saw the outbreak first in the Pacific Northwest, then into other parts of the country, we were already preparing by ordering and stockpiling PPE, planning to reduce our inmate population, making provisions for video intake, and restricting who comes in and out of the jail.  These early actions helped us.

In the first couple months we had very few cases of COVID. But this is a long-term issue. We’ve seen a few instances of inmates being affected by the virus, as well as a few of our staff. But, by and large, we’ve done very well at keeping COVID out of our facility.

Wexler:   Are things getting better or worse with COVID-19 in Milwaukee County?

Sheriff Lucas:  We had an uptick at the onset of warm weather and as the restaurants and bars started reopening. And we saw it shift from primarily affecting African-Americans and older people to Latinx people, younger people, and pretty much every community in the city. So we’ve seen a shift, but we’ve been relatively steady all along in terms of the number of cases and number of deaths. I think it’s because many people here in Wisconsin are adhering to the governor’s “Safer at Home” order and the protocols put forth by the CDC and others.


Reforming a Troubled Law Enforcement Agency

Wexler:  In 2018 you were elected Sheriff, and you took over a troubled agency. What were your objectives when you became sheriff? And how does your experience in Milwaukee County fit into the national conversation about law enforcement reform?

Sheriff Lucas:  Today is the two-year anniversary of the people of Milwaukee speaking up for change by electing me in the primary against the acting sheriff, who had been the #2 under the former sheriff, David Clarke. I came in with the goal of changing the discourse and dialogue in our community. I wanted to deliver the high level of service that the residents of Milwaukee County deserve. This is my hometown. I was reading in the news about what was happening here, and I felt that my experience with the Milwaukee Police Department and Major League Baseball could help.

Most importantly, I wanted to restore honor, integrity, and trust back to this organization and this profession. We are a social institution with inherent social responsibilities. In the 18 months we’ve been at this, I’m very pleased by what we’ve been able to accomplish.

The death of George Floyd impacted everyone. In my four decades in this business, I had never seen an act so reprehensible, that showed the depth of man’s inhumanity to man. It set all of law enforcement back on its heels.

Once we got over the shock of what we witnessed, it was incumbent on law enforcement leaders across the country to wake up the next day more determined to go out and restore the honor, trust, and service to our communities.

Wexler:  Are you seeing demonstrations?

Sheriff Lucas:  It’s our responsibility to protect those who are exercising their First Amendment right to peaceful assembly, and to guard against those who would want to break the peace. In the early days, we were challenged by the throngs of people coming out. There was early violence and disorder that we got under control.

The protests are still going on, and they’ve moderated in many ways. I’ve been out with the protesters. I hear them. Since day one, I’ve told them that this is my community and everyone’s community, and we’ve got to work together to resolve the issues. Right now, the voice of a few is the loudest, and some are calling for defunding the police. I believe that communities by and large support police and see the need for police. I’ve asked everybody to slow down, sit around a table, and discuss how to move our community forward. Law enforcement, the business community, the philanthropic community, the faith-based community, and all these organizations need to be at the table to map out how we move forward and keep our community safe.

Wexler:  What do you think about the calls to “defund” law enforcement?

Sheriff Lucas:  I can understand that the community is saying, “Let’s find funding for other programs in our communities.” But given what we’ve seen here with the disturbances and violent crime on the increase, until we are able to address some of the violent crime issues, I think most people will call for the police to come in and stabilize communities so they can start the repair work.

But I understand that there are other avenues that can be looked at. It might be dealing with homelessness issues in a different way, or addressing mental health issues with a more appropriate response, or addressing addictive behaviors with a more clinical response. We can all sit down at the table to figure out what that looks like. But I don’t think it calls for a drastic defunding of police in order to fund those priorities.


The Challenges Facing Major League Baseball

Wexler:  What does your experience with MLB tell you about the challenges of playing this season?

Sheriff Lucas:  It requires the effort of everyone at Major League Baseball to solve the challenge of keeping the players, managers, coaches, trainers, umpires, and other employees in the stadium safe. There were many conversations about limiting the number of people, testing protocols, contact tracing, and limiting players’ movement. I think they put a lot of thoughtful procedures in place. I tip my cap to everyone there for making this effort to resume sports, because we know sports mean so much to this country when we go through difficult periods.

Wexler:  Can you tell us about your decision to leave Major League Baseball and run for sheriff?

Sheriff Lucas:  I’ve had a wonderful career. I was raised by a single grandmother, went to Milwaukee public schools, survived a near-fatal gunshot wound early in my career, and advanced through the ranks at the Milwaukee Police Department.

Then I had a wonderful opportunity to travel the country and the world, and help to ensure that 75 million major league fans and 40 million minor league fans get to enjoy the game of baseball.

But it is the high honor of my professional career to be chosen by the people of this community to serve as sheriff for four years. I have the privilege of leading the young men and women of this organization into the future. So I am happy with my decision to leave baseball and run for sheriff. 


The PERF Critical Issues Report is part of the Critical Issues in Policing project, supported by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.


PERF also is grateful to the Howard G. Buffett Foundation for supporting this work.