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Milwaukee Candidates Clash In Race to Succeed The Infamous Sheriff Clarke

Several candidates are vying to become Milwaukee Sheriff in the wake of Sheriff David Clarke’s resignation last fall. But will they truly spurn his legacy of jail deaths and cooperation with ICE?

Former Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke Jr. speaks at the NRA-ILA’s Leadership Forum in 2017Scott Olson/Getty

On Tuesday, Milwaukee County will hold its first primary election for sheriff since David Clarke resigned from the position in September 2017 to join America First Action, a Trump-supporting SuperPAC. President Trump, Clarke said just before joining the SuperPAC, “does not have a racist bone in his body.” During his tenure, Clarke also said Black Lives Matter should be added to a list of “hate groups,” declared that “systemic racism in America is so rare today that some feel it necessary to make up stories to keep the lie about it alive” and, much more significantly, had three people die in his jail during his final year in office alone.

The Democratic primary election will have three opponents, including Richard Schmidt, who became interim sheriff when Clarke resigned, Earnell Lucas, who is head of Major League Baseball security, and Deputy Robert Ostrowski. Schmidt and Lucas say they’re opposed to Sheriff Clarke’s record on everything from jails to immigration, despite Schmidt serving as senior commander under Clarke and being named as a defendant in multiple wrongful death lawsuits from Clarke’s reign including the in-custody death of Terrill Thomas. In 2016, Thomas died of dehydration in the jail after guards shut off his water for one week. Several officers involved in the incident were charged with felonies by the county’s district attorney, including Major Nancy Evans who was accused of “withholding information from her superiors, lying to her superiors, failing to preserve evidence, repeatedly lying to law enforcement investigators and lying at the inquest.” The jail also faced sexual assault allegations under Clarke—one woman who filed a lawsuit claimed that she was raped five times by a guard while incarcerated at age 19.

In an interview with The Appeal, Schmidt insisted that he was not responsible for the jail deaths: “I cannot take responsibility for something I didn’t run.” He added that he has made significant changes to the jail’s operation—such as changing its healthcare administrator and hiring three wellness coordinators—since becoming acting sheriff last year.

But for some local activists, Schmidt’s proximity to Sheriff Clarke is troubling. “Schmidt does represent a continuation of the Clarke administration,” Christine Neumann-Ortiz of Voces de la Frontera, an immigrants rights organization and workers’ center in Wisconsin, told The Appeal, “He ran the day-to-day operations under Clarke.” Yesterday, Voces de la Frontera held a press conference at the county jail “to condemn Richard Schmidt’s role in deaths” there including James Perry, who died in 2010 after being violently restrained by law enforcement after he suffered seizures.  

And while Schmidt and Lucas claim to be criminal justice reformers, their policy positions reflect a more conservative stance. Schmidt says he doesn’t support the 287(g) program, which deputizes local law enforcement to enforce federal immigration laws. However, local nonprofits told The Appeal that when they asked Schmidt to withdraw the department’s 287(g) application, he did not do so. And under Schmidt’s leadership the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office honors ICE detainer requests—a continuation of Sheriff Clarke’s policy.

Lucas’s campaign, meanwhile, told The Appeal that he would not honor ICE detainers, except in certain cases. “An ICE detainer is a request, not a warrant,” a spokesperson from his campaign said. “Absent a warrant, Earnell will only honor ICE detainers if a rigorous screening process determines the person to be a threat to self, others, or to the community.  Otherwise, it will not be Earnell’s policy to honor ICE detainers.” In an interview with The Appeal, Lucas declared, “We have more pressing needs for holding persons in our jail than individuals who simply do not have the proper documentations.”

Neumann-Ortiz called ICE detainers “part of the ICE immigration machinery that undermines public safety [and] public trust” and cited Lucas’s commitment to not make ICE holds as one of the reasons Voces de la Frontera support him. “With such an aggressive assault and escalation of these policies that we’re seeing at the border and we’re seeing in the interior, it’s very critical that in every county and in every police department that we win these policies of non-collaboration with the sharing or holding of people [for ICE],” she told The Appeal.

Activists, organizers, and nonprofit organizations in Milwaukee have engaged in a years-long battle with Clarke and they believe that their organizing was a decisive factor in his abrupt resignation. Indeed, seven months before Clarke resigned, Voces de la Frontera organized a general strike called “Day Without Latinos,” which brought 80,000 people to the steps of the Milwaukee County Courthouse. The action garnered widespread media attention and inspired a national general strike called “A Day Without Immigrants.”

Now, organizers view the coming election as a chance for Milwaukee to truly close the book on Clarke’s civil rights-trampling reign. “It’s important we have our voices heard in this process because every day our communities are being over policed,” Angela Lang executive director of  Black Leaders Organizing for Communities (BLOC) told The Appeal. “We’re confronted with systemic and institutional racism on a daily basis …[and] we see Black and brown communities constantly being over policed and attacked for merely existing.”