Interview with Brian Barkow
Barkow wants a jail ombudsman and community advisory council. Says current conditions in jail are "appalling."
Milwaukee County residents will elect a new sheriff on Aug. 9 during the partisan primary. Incumbent Earnell Lucas, first elected in 2018, is not running for re-election. In addition, there are no Republicans in the race, which will result in the winning Democratic candidate being uncontested on the November ballot.
Below is our interview with Barkow. The candidate is currently an inspector with the Milwaukee County Sheriff‘s Office (MCSO), leading the Investigative Services Bureau.
You are reading one in a series of interviews with the candidates for Milwaukee County Sheriff. See links to the other interviews at the bottom of this article.
What do you think the primary concern of the Milwaukee County Sheriff should be?
Well, I mean, obviously, the county as a whole has a violent crime issue, reckless driving, motor vehicle theft, but and those are all things that I have plans to address. Matter of fact, I was the first candidate to lay out my plans last year. But more importantly, and specifically, we have to address the crisis in the jail. I think that has got to be our priority. I mean, years ago, when I started as a deputy, one of my training officers and Commanders back then, they said that if the jail is running well then the rest of the agency will run well, and I think we see that now.
We have a severe staffing shortage, in the jail, morale is low, not just within the jail, but across the agency, because now we have to pull resources from other areas to assist the jail, so we have to do a better job with attracting qualified candidates, we have to become a 21st century, not only a 21st-century law enforcement agency, but a 21st-century employer. And I’m not a human resource expert or recruiting and retention expert, but I learned a long time ago, that you bring, bring the outside in, okay, when you have these issues within an organization, and you reach out to experts that can help assist us with this. I think pay is part of the issue with recruiting, because if you look, every other county, okay, pays anywhere from 20 to 30%, more than what Milwaukee County does. But I also believe that we have a cultural issue within the agency that we have to address. So we have to be a more receptive and responsive employer and look at if we can’t do everything from a compensation perspective, then look at things that incentives that are meaningful to applicants, or prospective applicants. Whether that’s reduced parking, or free parking, or child care. Milwaukee County used to do childcare years ago. But we have to be more responsive to attract people to fill these positions.
So what do you think is the biggest challenge facing the MCSO?
Like I said, staffing in the jail. We have to get the jail under control, not just from a staffing perspective, but from a perspective of running a safe and humane jail. When I started as deputy back in 1997, there was a program manager that worked in the jail and that position was in charge of bringing in outside programs, whether it was GED education classes, job assistance, job training. But we had a lot more programming, that individuals that were that were in our care, in custody, could benefit from, and the jail conditions are just, I mean, they’re appalling. I’ve said this before in a number of interviews, jail conditions are appalling. And that’s not a knock the men and women that are working in there, they’re doing the best that they can do under the conditions that we’re currently in right now. But I’m at a loss for words, I’ve never seen the jail in this in this state. And so we have to get the jail under control in order for us to look at addressing any of the other issues, because it’s robbing Peter to pay Paul, we’re going to pull resources from other areas well then that’s going to make that short. Now, I do have a very robust plan, because my background is in computer engineering and data management, where historically over my career, I addressed similar issues like this, where we use data, to make better staffing decisions, redeploy resources where they’re needed prioritize things, we can’t just operate in a vacuum in the status quo, we have to change how we do things.
You mentioned the conditions in the jail, can you illustrate that point for me a little bit? What what’s so appalling about them?
Well, I mean, safety for everyone, safety for the people that we have in our care safety for the officers that work in there, and the other employees. We have roughly about 130 correction officers that are employed, and we should be more in the area of like, 260. We’re at like 50% filled positions for the jails. So, the individuals in custody are probably out about six hours a day. Sometimes that’s less, because that’s all based on staffing, and we have to do things in a safe manner that’s both safe for the individuals that are in custody, as well as our employees.
It’s a very dangerous situation for officers, especially for those that are brand new and inexperienced, and trying to manage, quite frankly, what I would call the chaos. There are massive delays in booking. I know that the municipalities are upset that they have to wait for individuals to be brought from their facilities over to be booked into the jail. And that’s due to flawed policies that are causing huge pre-transfer backup. And like I said, the district stations are not equipped to hold individuals for long periods of time. So those are transfer facilities. Overall, it is a crisis that we need to address first and foremost.
What do you think the biggest law enforcement challenge for the Sheriff’s Office right now and how would you address it?
Community trust. I think that is still a challenge for law enforcement. We have to continue to build trust. And I have laid out plans to create a jail ombudsman program which would be like an independent body that can address issues in the jail. We need to build trust not just by improving accountability and transparency, but we also need to be much more effective in reducing violent crime, as well.
If you remember, back in 2010, when there were just a number of incidents, assaults, to bus drivers on the county buses. We took 35 deputy sheriffs back then, and through data-driven deployment strategies and tactics, we reduced the overall incidents by 35%. We reduced the operator and passenger assaults by over 90%. So that’s just one example of what we’re able to do when we use data. I oversee the Investigative Services Bureau and we have successfully investigated homicides, non-fatal shootings and sexual assaults in our parks and along our trails. And it’s through a community-based data-driven intelligence-led platform, something that I’ve been pushing for the sheriff’s office to become much more robust in over the last 10 years.
And where does this data come from? Is this just police reports of incidents? Or what exactly are you using to make decisions in these cases?
Well, we’re using our own data internally. So calls for service, incident reports, crash reports, citation data, civil process, data, warranty data, booking data. Back in 2012, we were able through a grant to purchase a business intelligence solution called Web Focus. So all of our core data systems, record management systems, [computer aided dispatch], our correction management software, which is the software that is used in the jail, citation data, arrest data from booking.
All of this data is used collectively to identify problem areas where we can deploy hotspots. It will be what I like to call hotspot deployments. And it does two things, it takes very valuable resources, limited resources that we have, and it puts them in the area to address the problems. From an enforcement perspective, then, through community policing, we go into the area to engage the community, engage the public to get them to assist us with doing that. And then through that also, we are able to then obtain intelligence and information about other things that are going on. And all of these things work in conjunction with one another. And the other thing that it does, that I think is more important, is that we’re not over-policing communities, especially communities of color because we’re using data to determine the appropriate level and response to address the issues.
So do you think there are policies that could be implemented at the [Milwaukee County Jail], that would prevent the deaths that we’ve seen there in the last year or so? And what would those be?
First for the families that have lost a loved one that, I know they’re probably tired of hearing this, but I’m gonna say it because it’s the right thing to do and the right thing to say. I certainly want to extend my condolences to the families.
And yes, there is always more that we can do from a policy and procedural standpoint. Creating a jail ombudsman post. I’m the only candidate that has vowed to create a community advisory council. I believe that these are issues that a community advisory council could take up to help us address policy and even procedural changes. I have vowed to work with the Corporation Counsel and the District Attorney’s office when these incidents occur, and obviously our goal is to have them not occur, to be a little more transparent and receptive, responsive, to answer basic questions that the family may have. And I vow to work on the process and a policy and a procedure to do just that.
Bringing in more mental health resources than what we currently have. That can be done through volunteers. We used to have both group therapy as well as individual therapy. These are all things that we had years ago. And it’s something that I believe very strongly in.
When I first started as a deputy, I was assigned to the Day Reporting Center, which was an alternative to the incarceration program, and I spent six and a half years there. Restorative justice is something that I feel very strongly and very passionate about. The work that I did there for six and a half years, I actually earned an award from the Benedict Center. The Benedict Center they never gave an award to law enforcement a Community Service Award for law enforcement. But they did for my work there. There’s also stuff that we can take procedurally. We need to do a comprehensive review of the facility to identify possible hazards for self harm, propose capital projects to the county board to make any necessary infrastructural upgrades or changes.
The jail was built in 1992. And while it might have been state of the art at that time, I know that we have learned more and they have changed the design, and the infrastructural design of jails and holding facilities since then, to address a lot of these issues. So that’s obviously something else that I would vow to do.
We need to revisit our screening process to make sure that we’re looking at all relevant information to make a decision about housing unit placements and mental health follow up. That’s something that due to staffing shortages [isn’t] done all the time. But at the end of the day we need to solidify our reforms by bringing in that independent outside oversight for the first time. And the jail ombudsman program to deal with the issues. And I’ll say this, I’m the only candidate who is willing to do this in the form of the jail ombudsman.
And could you explain exactly what that ombudsman program would be and how it would work?
It would be an independent body. An example could be the ACLU or the Legal Aid Society, some legal entity. And they would have independent oversight, meaning that they wouldn’t work for the sheriff. It would [report to] the county board or to the county executive. But they would share their findings and information with the sheriff so that we can address the issues and concerns. It’s real accountability. It’s real transparency.
What I want to make clear is that when you look at me and look at all my opponents talk about accountability and transparency, I’ve actually developed plans that actually show transparency. And these are things that I’ve been public about since day one so the public can hold me accountable for not creating. But I have given specific plans on how we will be more transparent and accountable, not just merely talking about that need to be more transparency and accountability.
Some former [correctional officers] have mentioned conditions in the jail as a reason why they left their jobs. Do you have any ideas for improving these conditions in the jail?
In my current role, I oversee our background investigations unit, which does the background [checks] to bring applicants on board. They conduct the background check, and make sure that everything checks out in order to hire them. But part of that group also what they look at is exit interviews. And I can tell you that, from looking at exit interviews, while pay might be a concern for those officers that you mentioned, that have left, the bigger reason why people left was because of how they were being treated by supervision and management. And what I mean by that is they were being yelled at. They didn’t feel that they had the support of their supervisors, their decisions were often overridden without really any reason or justification for that.
I also teach at the training academy and so I hear firsthand from officers and deputies about the conditions and the work environment within the facility. It goes back to what I said in the beginning, that we need to become a 21st-century employer, we need to understand the needs of the workforce, or the potential workforce now, not what it was 30 years ago , or 20 years ago, or even 15 years ago, when the majority of us were hired. We have to do a much better job and how I would address that is training, both supervision and management training.
Last year, Milwaukee County Human Resources did a survey, where they surveyed the employees within the three different bureaus at the sheriff’s office. And out of all three bureaus, the Investigative Services Bureau, which is the bureau that I command, received the highest rating of satisfaction by the employees. I think there was like a 4.8 out of five. And it’s because like I said, I empower. That’s the role of a leader, that’s the role of a supervisor and a manager. Yes, you do have to sometimes discipline employees for certain things, but there’s a right way of doing that and there’s a wrong way of doing that. We don’t want to do it in the wrong way where it causes the person to become resentful or upset, or to the point where they quit. And I think a lot of the problems in the jail with staffing are a result of that.
I’ll say this, in 2020, at the height of COVID, we were pretty much at full staffing in the jail. And back then the starting wage was $5 less an hour. So if money was the issue from the beginning how was it that we were able to get the place to full staffing, but now we can barely get people to come in the door? And I’m not saying that all of it is not related to competitive salaries and being a competitive employer. But like I said, going back to what I mentioned earlier, I think a lot of it has to do with we have to change the culture within the agency, not just within the jail, but the culture as a whole throughout the entire sheriff’s office.
Do you think that a sheriff has the ability to change a culture within the agency? And how could a sheriff do that?
Of course. One, we need to implement a community-centered policing culture. And that is something that as the next Sheriff, I have vowed to do. The Investigative Services Bureau currently is doing it okay to address issues in the parks. We created a process for the community to engage with us to identify or report problems to us anonymously about things that are going on in and around the parks. There again, using data-driven, intelligence-led, community-centered deployment strategies. Since we have done that, I can’t tell you how many stolen vehicles we’ve recovered with the help of the community. What we need to do is incentivize this kind of community engagement where it’s something we accomplished through a unit.
Going back to training. Every deputy sheriff should be trained in community-based policing. They should also received in implicit bias training, better mental health training. We have a Crisis Assessment and Response Team [CART] program, something that I would want to expand. But we do crisis intervention team training. We need to put greater emphasis on that type of training, because it’s community centered. Right? And so we change the culture by changing how we do things. We have a mission statement and a vision statement that we work to get buy-in on. And you don’t approach it from the perspective of “Well, I’m the Sheriff, and this is what we’re going to do.” We have to educate our staff as to why we’re doing this and get buy-in. I’m realistic, that’s not something that’s going to happen overnight. But over time, if there is a clear direction, a clear vision, a clear focus, a clear message, we can work to get buy in and change the culture while we’re patrolling, engaging with the community, community organizations and promoting youth activities in our parks.
I’ve had a conversation with local artists to do, basically, like a public art program. We talk about how people get upset when the buildings and the infrastructure are [covered in graffiti]. Well, let’s bring in like some local artists that we can do like these public art events, where you take some two-by-fours, you put up some, some plywood or whatever, and you do these, like art projects in the community. It’s positive interactions. You get the officers involved, to engage with community. Give [community members] a place to show off their artistic talents in a meaningful way.
Engaging with our seniors at the senior centers. That’s something that I don’t think we do enough of, but, these are all things that there again, it changes the culture. And from talking with officers, not just the correctional and deputies, but just talking with employees, in the sheriff’s office, there are a lot of schools that want to engage in a meaningful way. The enforcement piece of it is always going to be there, unfortunately. But what we have to do, we can’t be all about enforcement, we have to engage with the community. I think it leads to more positive interactions and outcomes in a way to build the community trust.
Do you support investing in quality-of-life improvements in the jail in things like free phone calls and better food?
Well, I believe I’m the only candidate who applauded the de-privatization of the commissary and food. So yes, we should not be gouging prices those that are in our care with high prices, and trying to fix our deficits and budget shortfalls on the backs of those that are in our care and their families. We need reasonably priced alternatives to doing that. A phone call shouldn’t cost any more than what it costs if you’re not in custody at the jail. And yes, with technology, which is something that I’m very passionate about, we can explore free services or at least significantly reduced services as other viable options. I mean, these are all things that I would put on the table to address. And there again, the community advisory council that I would create, this is a perfect opportunity or plan for them to bring up and address, to look at more meaningful, cost effective ways, while still providing that high quality of service.
Given that some supervisors on the board have attempted to reduce the MCSO budget in the past and will likely continue to do so, do you plan to work with them? And or how would you work with them as Sheriff?
As Sheriff, you have to work with everyone, whether you agree with what is being said or not.
Do I agree with defunding the sheriff’s office? No, I don’t. And the reason that I don’t is because it’s going to affect things that, quite frankly, they’re very passionate about: the care in the jail. You can’t cut services, we have to have funding for the basic services that we are statutorily and constitutionally instructed to perform. Reducing it any more than what it is already, it’s going to put people at risk, both employees and the public.
We have to do a much better job securing our courthouse complex. There are vulnerabilities there, and there are safety concerns, whether it’s at the airport, in jail, in the courts, on our expressways, in our parks and other county, buildings. We’re going to do better with what we have. It’s not like I’m going to ask for any more [funding]. We’re going to do better with what we have, and then go from there. But cutting the budget anymore, is only going to jeopardize the safety of those that are in our care and of the general public, which in this day and age with violent crime, reckless driving and a number of other issues plaguing public safety, that’s not something that I believe that we can afford to do.
Nationally, the number one threat to national security right now is domestic violent extremism. That is a real threat. And it’s a real concern. And whether people like that or agree with it or not, the frontline defense against that is law enforcement. We’re there to protect the rights of everyone. And protect free speech and all of that. But unfortunately, not everybody agrees with a lot of things that are being said, and we’ve seen countless examples of this across the country. Some here, locally. But those are real threats, and they’re real concerns that often I don’t think are often spoken about, but they are real concerns and real threats that we face on a daily basis. And with Homeland Security, the airport is an example of our homeland security function. So if we were to just arbitrarily slash the sheriff’s budget, we would lose the ability to guard the airport, we put greater risk in the jail. It would be a major risk to all of us.
The interview was edited for clarity.
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