It’s easy to wonder why Earnell Lucas left a prominent and senior executive level position with Major League Baseball when he decided to return home to run for Milwaukee County Sheriff in 2018.
The former MPD captain rose through the ranks under Commissioner Bud Selig and eventually was put in charge of MLB’s security and facilities management, a role that evolved dramatically after 9/11. Beyond the obvious pay cut that comes with a job public service, being sheriff is polarizing, controversial and especially challenging in today’s political climate.
But Lucas’ heart never strayed far from home. Raised by his grandmother in the Hillside Housing Projects, he came back to make a difference.
Chat with him for a few minutes, and you’ll quickly realize Lucas isn’t your typical top cop. On-the-job experiences shaped his world view – he was shot in the head as a young officer – and he’s very much a cerebral type. Lucas graduated cum laude from Marquette in 2000 with a degree in criminology and law studies. He also is a graduate of the Federal Bureau of Investigation National Academy and Northwestern University's School of Police Staff and Command.
But more importantly, Milwaukee’s 65th sheriff takes a compassionate, intellectual approach to law enforcement and strikes a visible contrast to his outspoken predecessor, David Clarke. And of course, he entered this job at a pivotal point in history. Lucas, 62, advocates for body cameras for his deputies and the right to peacefully protest police brutality. He campaigned on the notion of restoring honor, integrity and trust to the Sheriff’s Department.
Two years into the job, he has his work cut out of him.
We caught up with Lucas for coffee at Sam’s Place Jazz Cafe on Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive. A 20-minute scheduled interview turned into an hour-long conversation. Say what you want about the state of law enforcement in Milwaukee and around the country, but there’s no denying this sheriff’s passion and enthusiasm for his job and why he took it.
OnMilwaukee: I’m probably not the first to ask if you expected your first two years as Milwaukee County Sheriff to be quite so intense. You left an amazing job and returned to a real inflection point in policing. How much of this did you expect walking into the job?
Sheriff Earnell Lucas: Well, if you had told me that we'd be in the throes of a year-long pandemic then we would witness more and more reprehensible acts of man's inhumanity to man with the killing of George Floyd back on May 25, and then to have the presidential election of 2020 that still seems to be carrying on into the new year … I would have maybe thought twice about making that move at the time. But I'm very comfortable with my decision.
This is where we are right now, the neighborhood I grew up in, the school right here on the corner is the elementary school that I went to. I walked to Rufus King High School from the corner of 2nd and Burleigh. And I knew coming back that there was the challenge of restoring the honor, integrity and trust into the sheriff's office that I thought was so important. And many had asked if I would consider it and thought about it and searched my soul and spoke with some people that I respect immensely and made a decision that I'm willing to come home and take on the challenge and the responsibility.
I know that everyone asks you why you left MLB, but we have to get that out of the way. You reached the pinnacle to a career for someone who has worked their way up through law enforcement. You could have retired at this point, but you chose to come home and make a difference in your own community. Why did you do it?
I felt that the rewards for me were greater. I was very blessed, Andy, that I was born in the Hillside Housing Project. My family moved to the west side of Milwaukee, but after the ’67 disturbances, we settled in right on the corner here on 2nd and Burleigh. And it was shortly after moving there as a young boy at age 11, I lost my mother. I had a grandmother who from the old South who was a domestic outside of Birmingham, in Jasper.
She raised her four kids and then came here to raise three boys, me being the youngest, and taught us those hard lessons in life. And I was inspired to a career in law enforcement early by an encounter that I had with a police officer here that accused me of stealing a purse. And I told him I hadn’t. In that exchange, he sped away thinking that this had to be the most naive 12-year-old in Milwaukee. When you think about the encounters that young Black and brown men and women have today, versus the one that I had, what’s different that I was able to go free. And some of the encounters that we see today is not the case.
As a child, do you remember having “the talk?”
My recollection of law enforcement as growing up here was actually a positive one. What was then Garfield Park is now Clinton Rose. The police officers came on to the courts in uniform, played basketball and softball with the young people in the summer, and we'd have activities and programming in the park. That really helped keep a lot of us young men and young women out of other dangerous activities. And so, no.
There was very positive interactions. We knew officers by their name, Black and white. And of course today, there is no longer a residency requirement in Milwaukee, but many of those officers went to church. You saw them in the grocery stores or you saw them in other places, or their kids went to the same school as you did. So there was a lot of interaction. It was a different time then.
So do you think that removing that residency requirement changed the dynamic between the people in the community and the officers?
Well, I'm one that realizes it's settled law now, if you will, but at the same time, if you're asking me if anything was lost there, I think considerable was lost. Milwaukee faces a lot of challenges right now with its finances, because a lot of the tax base of those city workers that used to be here in the city, have moved outside of not only the City, but the County. And that makes a challenge for the City of Milwaukee.
But yes, I think the interaction that members of the fire service, teachers and police had with the communities that they served – part of that was lost when the change came. And so it certainly has had an impact and effects.
You talk a lot about restoring honor and integrity to the department. Full disclosure, I wasn’t a giant fan of David Clarke, and perhaps you weren't, either, and I don't expect you to speak ill of your predecessor, but the public perception of your department wasn’t great when you were elected. How do you draw contrasts from the previous person to hold your job?
Well, first off, I don't. I let others make those contrasts, but I will say that I think we have sort of evolved from the agency that I inherited back in 2019 to where we are today. It didn't happen overnight. We still got a lot of work to do, but I felt that we needed to treat each other better in the organization. The house was divided, if you will, that you had the correctional officers and the deputies, and there wasn't that unity, that cohesion that's needed in any organization, and for it to really be pushing upstream and forward. And so I felt that if we worked on our internal issues, we could really start to evolve in the organization. But then, of course, we had to go out and rebuild the relationships in the County Parks department and the County Executive, someone who actually ran an opponent against me.
But at the same time, though, when I came into office, I've made it job No. 1 to establish a relationship with him. And in 18 board supervisors of which they're 18 independent contractors, they got their own minds. And I just felt that any differences I'm sorry that we had, hey, let's come into a room and let's talk them out. But when we walk outside that door, let’s conduct ourselves and comport ourselves in ways that everybody would be proud of us to say, well, I respect the Sheriff's position. I respect the supervisor's position. I respect their positions. They do a good job of representing us.
Did your position with baseball allow you to become a better facilitator? It's one thing to be able to manage your own deputies, but the interdepartmental politics and overlapping jurisdictions in Milwaukee County are complex.
I had a great teacher in one Commissioner Allan H. Bud Selig, who as you know, spent more waking hours with me than we did with our spouses for six years. And so there was a lot for me to learn, not only about the business of baseball, but about life in general and how he was able to manage 30 owners of clubs with differing opinions, all of them successful in their own rights. How he was able to keep the business partners, the sponsors and everyone moving in the same direction.
Of course, the biggest challenge for baseball was, and still is today, labor and how they for 22 years kept labor peace. Coming from a labor family, I understand the importance of having those relationships with labor and working in partnership and moving the organization forward. I saw that at baseball, saw it up close and personal in the league countdown to the 2002 bargaining negotiation after the All Star Game here in Milwaukee. So there were some moments that really, really captured me and taught me management lessons that I think I've learned from him, and I'm able to apply here.
You came into that job shortly after 9/11, and everything in baseball security had to change. Did that experience give you a trial by fire on how to write a new game plan for crisis communications in policing?
Without a doubt. Even my position, itself, was created as a result of 9/11. Baseball did an analysis of its operations, so that we had 800 employees in the New York office and the commissioner in Milwaukee, and what do we do? And so my position was created. But certainly the challenge for us was how do we ensure that 75 million fans at the Major League Level and 40 million fans at the Minor League level enjoy baseball game in a post 9/11 world.
And again, that's continued to evolve. One of the more pivotal moments in baseball’s history was the Boston Marathon bombing. At which point, baseball leadership decided then that we needed to move to magnetometers at our gates, which was prior the last thing that anybody wants to see, but is now a reality in our society. Over the years, we had to enhance bag inspections, and now even bag policies where you can't bring a bag into some facilities. So it's been forever changed by the events of 9/11 , without a doubt.
Do you miss that job at all?
I can't say I miss it ... I'm enjoying myself. Let me put the focus on what's important. I have the privilege every day of waking up and going out and leading young men and women to a common goal and purpose of keeping our community safe. And I have the ability to go into schools and churches and senior homes and inspire people to the work that law enforcement does. And so I'm very, very excited and when I lay my head down on the pillow at night. I just thank the Lord for how grateful I am to have the position that I have right now. Baseball was, to use the term, very, very, very good to me and I don't regret the 17 years that I spent there.
As a casual observer, something feels different to me about this department. Even bringing in Faithe Colas, who has a long career in community engagement, was a signal to me. And, you were a public information officer with MPD, so you have experience in working with the media. Before that you were a dispatcher. I even read your statement on the Capitol insurrections, which didn’t pull any punches. Am I putting words in your mouth to say that you are actively working on changing your department?
If I could use another baseball analogy, one of the great experiences I had was to travel twice a year to a forum where commissioners of all of the major sports were in the room. And you could sit from David Stern, to Paul Tagliabue, to Tim Finchem, to Bud Selig and see what drove them to how they got to where they were. David Stern was a marketing maven, he was just really great. Paul Tagliabue was very cerebral, very thoughtful about that. And then here's this guy from Milwaukee who baseball just oozes out of every inch of his body. He was so passionate about the game of baseball.
Well, I think for me it's similar. This is a passion for me. This is not a job. This is not work. This is something that I've been very passionate about from the day I entered into this. And I care genuinely about the people in this community, and therefore that's my total focus.
I came in with the attitude that, yes, I had a much higher profile position and it was certainly compensated in a better way but in many respects, but I get much greater rewards doing what I'm doing today than anything that baseball could ever do, because I get the respect of people. Some that don't even know me and that we see something differently. There's something prevailing in our community now that we haven't seen or had before. And it couldn't have come at a better time given the challenges that we're facing right now.
Do you think being a public information officer has honed your ability to communicate with the media and to tell the stories that the department needs to tell? It's one thing to be a great cop and to rise to a certain level. It's another thing to be able to communicate your initiatives.
Oh, without a doubt. I certainly my baptism coming into the public information office back in 1992, which is the summer of the trial of the officers involved in the Dahmer atrocities. And after the trial, I thought it was going to be a short stint to cover the media that was here from all over the world at that time. But the then-Chief asked me to stay on in his office, and I stayed on through the end of his tenure and then on, into two and a half years into the next Chief’s tenure. It taught me the virtue in the value of interaction with the media and how the media has a job to do. And certainly we could mutually accomplish what it is that we have to do. Your job is not finished until you've helped them do their jobs. And by doing that, we're all getting the job done.
We're not going to necessarily always agree, and there's always going to be things that we not may or may not necessarily appreciate. But at the end of the day, I've always maintained a healthy respect for the media. It was my life's goal, one of my life's goals anyway, to have been a journalist in the mold of an Edward R. Murrow. Or Walter Cronkite, who I watched as a young boy deliver stories from Vietnam. So those were my icons that I looked up to. Well, it didn't work out for me so much that way, nor did becoming the next Kareem Abdul-Jabbar either – I thought I threw a great skyhook.
And yet, the media landscape has changed, now that everyone has cell phone cameras and records things that the public rarely had access to. How do you balance the good stories and stay transparent with the bad ones?
I think we're missing the opportunity for us to share our stories. Yeah. I don't expect the 10 o'clock news to feature every good story about, "Hey, this is what this cop is doing in the community, or this is what this deputy is doing in the community.” But again, there are a number of great stories of even officers in their day-to-day. I've consider it like a bank account to the extent that there's almost a million law enforcement officers in the country who go out each day and make deposits into that bank account, doing wonderful things, rescuing somebody from a burning car or a burning home, returning a lost child or a disoriented parent or family member, or bringing closure to a family that's lost a loved one to violent crime.
But all it takes is that one withdrawal and that one negative 30 or 10 second video. It wipes out that entire bank account that had been built up. And so that's our constant struggle. Well, again, it's the sheriff, the police chief, the leader that gets out in front of those things and is open with their community, the ones that tend to be more successful in joining support.
Do you personally wrestle with that? Nobody wants to see George Floyd get murdered on tape, and it keeps happening. Even if statistically, it’s rare, it’s like a plane crash. It just takes one bad cop. Not just as a human and as a citizen, but as an African-American, does this keep you up at night?
It doesn't weigh on me and keep me up at night in the way you phrased the question. What it does do, it motivates me in the morning to get up and go and double down and work even harder. Because yes, there's plenty of work to be done. And every morning I wake up and you wake up, there's a new video, there's a new story. There's even an old story that has found its way into the public space. And now what do we do? How do we respond? How do we react? And so, no, it gives me the fuel and the motivation to get up each day and go out and work even harder, be more determined that we ensure that our training is consistent with the best practices of this profession, that our officers have the best and latest equipment, that they have the proper supervision.
And I always say that the two things that will land law enforcement in a courtroom and cost taxpayer dollars is our failure to train and our failure to supervise. And if we don't get those two things right, then again, we're going to find ourselves continually where we are.
I also read that you said that you can't control what's in someone's heart, or someone's mind, you can only control what they do while they're on the job. But is there a way to better train deputies or hire ones without these biases in the future?
I wrote a paper back at MATC. It's about the recruitment, the training and retention of law enforcement officers in 21st century. Now, that was 1970. What we're selling in today, you have to be different than what was being sold when even I joined the job because on the tail end of the baby boomer generation, it was salary, benefits, and those kinds of things like that. Now people are looking for something different today, and they want to be a part of change, they want to be flexible and other things like that.
So even as leaders, we have to be more creative, more dynamic and then we have to provide them that training. And certainly as we talk about the subject of reform and re-imagining police, we've got to take a very critical look at the training we offer.
We historically provided the military stress model of training. That is something that we've got to look at as leaders and managers and say, is there another way to train the next generation? And then of course, what things can we do to keep those individuals motivated over a long period. Not everybody's coming into this job today for 25, 30, 35 year career like when I came in, so then what can we do to ensure that they're giving us their all for the time that they're here? But you pointed to the fact that well I can't change what's in a man or a woman's heart. I can ensure for that 8, 10, 12 or 14 hours that they're under the employ of them Milwaukee County Sheriff's office, that they're going to conduct themselves in the manner that we would ask them to and treat everybody with dignity and respect.
I think the “defund the police” is a loaded slogan, because it implies of getting rid of law enforcement. But the sentiment seems like a good one: increasing resources for mental health and not expecting cops to be social workers or psychologists. Is there some validity to that concept?
I've always said that I've watched over the years as the social fabric in our country continues to collapse. The educational system, the healthcare system, mental health system, employment in our communities starts to collapse, collapses on to the law enforcement profession. And we were just not cut out to be all those things and respond to all of those situations and circumstances, yet society still expects us to be able to address that individual that's having a crisis and know everything proper and how to handle that. And it's the same thing with domestic violence.
I remember when that was introduced into profession, it was "OK, you, sir, leave the house. You, ma'am just stay here, take care of the kids" and all that kind of thing. And it was a perpetual cycle that we saw day in and day out, if not week in and week out. No, we've got to be find creative solutions and alternative solutions to societal issues other than the law enforcement response. And I think once we start re-imagining communities as a whole then we can better address how we want, what we want our police to do, but just by taking it and looking at it from the “what do we do about the police,” then we're missing all of those issues that led to where we are today.
I’ve visited a few cities in the last year that were really decimated by protests. Tons of property damage, boarded up stores and businesses that are never coming back. Do you have sympathy for Milwaukee’s protestors and how they conducted themselves?
I think we in Milwaukee County were fortunate. I'm not certain that everybody views it that way, but in the context of communities that you alluded to that we didn't see the violence, we didn't see the destruction protests. Again, we're here to ensure the rights of those that want to peacefully protest peacefully assemble. But with me and with our agency, we made sure that we weren't going to tolerate individuals that were going to even infringe on the rights of those that are trying to act peacefully with protest, let alone destroy property or, more importantly, threaten human life. We were very fortunate in our interactions prior to protests interacting with members of organizations, leaders of protests, elected officials and the like.
I think our tactics of restraint have served us well in terms of how we've approached responses to even outbreaks of disorder. I think we've done fairly well there. And then overall, I think just having engaged, enlightened leaders supervising when protests break out has helped us. And so, it's been a combination of things, but I wished all of Milwaukee took a deep sigh of relief in saying we were and are very fortunate to not look like some of those other communities.
The Milwaukee County Sheriff department has a lot of overlapping jurisdiction with every city and village in the county, which all have their own police forces. Did that spare your department some of the worst parts of the protests, or was this an importunity to collaborate?
We've got five core responsibilities here in Milwaukee County under the airport, Milwaukee County courthouse, 150 parks, Milwaukee County freeway system and a jail, which is certainly it's the biggest drain on us. One of the things we are to the 19 municipalities is a support agency. So while they were protests were breaking out in the various communities and villages, we were acting as a support agency, but at the same time acting independent and under our own auspices. Because again, we had to ensure that we were doing the right things and that we were doing them the right way.
Let's face it, some of the optics, some of the video clips that we've seen from even protests here, the optics of them weren't great. And I never wanted to lose the authority over our members because, again, I don't know what all of the other leaders might do or think in a certain situation. So it was important for me to be actively engaged throughout the protests.
So you don’t feel siloed between MPD, the FBI, the State Highway Patrol, and all the other agencies that have a say in policing in Milwaukee County?
As someone who certainly has traveled the country over working with different law enforcement entities, I can say we're very fortunate here in Milwaukee County that there is a mutual respect and collaboration between the various agencies. In fact, prior to this meeting with you, there was a meeting of Milwaukee County law enforcement group. And again we discussed the challenges, the issues that we're all facing. I couldn't be more pleased. We might not view all things through the same lens, the same perspective, but at the end of the day whether it was with the Mayfair Mall shooting or problems posing Glendale with protestors at Bayshore and other places like that, certainly Oak Creek and going back years to the Sikh temple, there's been great collaboration, certainly even with our federal partners and our state partners. And again, as one who has learned the lessons of cooperation, collaboration, partnerships, I think I've just only continued to further those relationships.
You lived in New York when you worked for MLB. How was that different from living here?
I could not be more pleased with my decision to come back. New York was challenging, It was great. We lived in Midtown, my wife and I. I walked to work every day. I saw so many things that you just don't see on a day in and day out basis here in Milwaukee, motorcades traveling through the city all the time. But there was also some inconveniences that you just take for granted here in Milwaukee, even the smell of green grass. You didn't see that in the concrete jungle of Manhattan, or just simply being able to go out in your yard and enjoying a little room. And my 800-square-foot apartment in New York city – I kid myself or kid with others – I say I was like the Jackie Gleason from “The Honeymooners.” I walked through the door and said, "Honey, I'm home" and everything that I own is right there in front of me. Well, now we have a home, it's very comfortable.
What neighborhood you live in now?
I live in Downer Woods down by UWM campus. And I'm able to be in one end of the house and my wife can be in the other end of the house. I have a little vinyl collection of 4,000 records that I've collected over the years, that no matter what mood I'm in, what my feelings are, I'm able to put that needle into that groove. And all of a sudden, my world is just at ease, at peace.
As someone who has lived in cities outside Milwaukee, I sometimes notice that Black people, white people and Latino people don’t really go to the same places. It’s sort of like voluntary segregation. But sitting here in this coffee shop, I see all sorts of colors. Do you seek out places where people who don’t look like each other come together?
Well, I don't subscribe to the common notions that a lot of people like to put out about the city of the most segregated city in American. Really, have you traveled? Have you been anywhere else to make those assessments? Well, I have, and I've seen some places that are as segregated, if not even more. But one of the things that I think we don't do here as well is we're not willing to have those hard conversations. We can talk about a lot of things, but as we've seen the events of Jan. 6 or a host of other things, we would tend to avoid the hard conversation on race in this community.
And listen, it's been an issue in this community for all the years I've been on this earth, and it will continue to be unless until we start having those hard conversations. And I think a place like Sam's Place can be the meeting place, the melting pot for us to have those conversations, those dialogues, and let's start talking about our differences, but even more so than that, let's identify what things we have in common. And I think we can find a lot more simply by just having those conversations.
I’m sure it’s hard for you to be anonymous now. What do you do when you're not wearing the badge? Where do you go to eat?
Well, I'm a fairly good cook, myself. I enjoy Southern cuisine. I grew up again raised by a grandmother who taught me as well how to toss it up in the kitchen, but I truly enjoy that aspect of Milwaukee. We have some great neighborhoods with some great restaurants, and I love all cuisines. And I'm always adventurous. Even when I'm home cooking, don't use recipes, it's a pinch of this and a dash of that and all those kinds of things. So again, we partake, my wife and I partake in all of the neighborhoods and all of the restaurants and all the cuisines. My wife and my first big date was at Ristorante Bartolotta. Carnevor now has certainly become one of those places that's a go-to. And so, whether it's Cafe Centraal and you can go there and just have a great meal and burst with flavors, or Cafe Corazon, there’s great, great food here. So wherever you go in Milwaukee here you can't miss because there's so many great locations.
I always ask public figures how they use social media. You’re kind of old school, but do you see value in communicating directly with your constituents?
I try to ensure that we stay engaged as much as we possibly can. I wish I was as savvy as some of the people that literally everywhere they go in a day, they can tell you where they are, what they're doing. And I'm not even certain that that's even in the best interest for me to do that. So that's one thing I don't do. But to the point, I actually enjoy the public space and even every time we put up a post or every time I put out a release, commenting on anything around the country, including even something like the death of the great, Henry Aaron or Ruth Bader Ginsburg, you'll see there'll be comments from others that say, "Well, why don't he stay focused on his day job?”
But that's the fuel though for me to say, well, then I must be doing something that I got their attention. It's not my intent, because I don't use it as a platform to try to profess and prophesize to everyone. But I try to put things out there that are thoughtful and meaningful and caring.
Do you wish people could get to know you as a person, and not just as the Sheriff?
If they just took the time and got to know of the young boy that up in Hillside and then the experiences that I had growing up and losing my mom at an early age … that encounter with that officer …
Not to mention being shot in the line of duty.
Getting shot in the line of duty. And then my passion and love for music and my passion for communication and writing and everything. Those are all things that if people took the time to know more about me, they would say, "Wow, that man that's a pretty inspiring story for a boy from Milwaukee, Wisconsin."
Should the sheriff be an elected position? And why must you run with a party affiliation?
Yes, it should be an elected position because there are sheriffs that are appointed around the country, much like a police chief who is appointed. You serve so many masters, the fire and police commission, the mayor, the city manager and many other council persons you have on the community groups. The sheriff is elected every four years by the people. And over time you'll get a much wider view of his or her performance and can then make a better assessment. But because of the times that we live in right now, so many police chiefs and good friends lost their jobs last year. When you Google the word “police,” and I do it every day, you're going to see that either one was retired or one was fired. Or one died or was indicted. Those are not good things, but sheriffs, you don't see that when you google us. You don't find that be the case because again, people over time tend to think, well, let me look at the whole of what he or she has done. Not just simply one point in time. And so yes, it should be elected. No, it should not be partisan. And there are places around the country where it's not a partisan race. And that is the unfortunate part of it here, that it is a partisan race. But I'm very grateful to serve here as the sheriff here. It was humbling to go out into communities and neighborhoods that people never seen me, never met me, never knew me and ask them for their vote.
It seems like a hard job to campaign for.
And it was humbling when some turned me down and said, "No." But when I stood on the podium that night at The Rave, Aug. 14, I said that I was going to be the sheriff of all of Milwaukee County. And that's my commitment to be the sheriff of all of Milwaukee County.
Is this something you want to do for a while?
I want to do it for as long as the people of Milwaukee will allow me to do it. I don't know what this future holds. Again, I had a great opportunity prior to coming here, I'm grateful for this opportunity now, but if there's another way that I can impact young people, inspire them to do greater things with their lives and do more for this community that gave me the opportunities that I've had, I'm willing.
Andy is the founder and co-owner of OnMilwaukee.com. He returned to Milwaukee in 1996 after living on the East Coast for nine years, where he wrote for The Dallas Morning News Washington Bureau and worked in the White House Office of Communications. He was also Associate Editor of The GW Hatchet, his college newspaper at The George Washington University.
Before launching OnMilwaukee.com in 1998 at age 23, he worked in public relations for two Milwaukee firms, most of the time daydreaming about starting his own publication.
Hobbies include running when he finds the time, fixing the rust on his '75 MGB, mowing the lawn at his cottage in the Northwoods, and making an annual pilgrimage to Phoenix for Brewers Spring Training.