Interview with Mohamed Awad
Awad wants to change culture of Sheriff's Office, saying commanders from Clarke-era must go.
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 Awad. The candidate is currently a lieutenant with the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO). He has been a member of the MCSO since 2017.
You are reading the third 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 should be the primary concern of the next Milwaukee County Sheriff?
I had no intention of getting into law enforcement prior to when I did in 2017. I did it under the impression of “okay this looks like a new change is taking place with Clarke having just stepped down and I wanted to kind of be a part of the revamped Sheriff’s Office.” You know, trying to be the positive change that I had an opinion of and wanted to see as a private citizen. So I said, “Okay, let me try getting into law enforcement and see how I can do.”
I rose up to lieutenant faster than I’ve heard from anybody else that has worked there. And I did it by doing things properly, being honest, and treating people fairly. That means people that I work with, as well as individuals that we come in contact with. So, but then I realized that there was a ceiling, as lieutenant I can only change so much, as far as the way we operate with our policies and procedures, and the culture within the sheriff’s office. I was able to, I believe, shape some of the officers around me some of the deputies around me, as well as some of the supervisors. But when I’m not the one, that’s really, the captain or the inspectors that are around the sheriff’s office. I can only do so much. And when I did come to them with issues and things that should have been addressed, I was kind of, instead of the problem being looked at, I was looked at as the problem.
[The leaders] kind of take on the “Okay, you’re a know it all, or this or that. So, you think you can juggle three things, try juggling six now.” I got pushed back on third shift, and I was surprised and a little disheartened that okay, “are we not trying to be you know, the most ethical as leaders in law enforcement? Are we not trying to do things properly and correctly?” And why don’t we promote individuals who do step up to say, “Okay, this is a problem here, we might want to look at fixing this.” But like I said, it’s that old kind of culture of “I’m just going to take some information from my trusted individuals.”
It still has that kind of ego-driven mantra that was led on by Sheriff Clarke. Aside from pay, I feel like it is the major reason why we have staffing issues, why we cannot hold on to employees, why people are retiring early, going to other agencies, they’re just leaving law enforcement altogether, based off the toxic environment that’s within the sheriff’s office right now.
What do you think is the biggest challenge facing Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office?
Somebody taking the reins and actually following through on what they’re saying.
I’ve seen our staffing levels go up when we were having a new sheriff, which was Sheriff Lucas, who I voted for. He said that he’s gonna do away with a lot of the old ways of operating that were under Sheriff Clarke and he pretty much left everything exactly the same.
So when folks seen that it wasn’t actually a culture change happening with Lucas coming in, that everything was just operating the exactly the same, just maybe under a different name, that’s when we start to see our staffing levels plummet once again. And we are in an emergency state at this point.
The corrections officers and deputies that are working in the jail are having to be pulled off the streets from patrol. They’re being pulled in from the courts, from the park, just to staff the jail and causing a domino effect.
We’ve seen in the paper, a good week or two ago, that their judges didn’t feel safe. So then we make a kind of knee-jerk reaction, and now take people out of the jail again, to help staff the courts, however, we’re just moving one issue and putting it in a different area without actually addressing the issue.
What do you think is the biggest law enforcement challenge for the MCSO? And how would you address it?
The biggest challenge is the culture. Before the pay, before anything else, it is the culture that is the main reason is we’re not able to retain staff.
If elected, I would make those necessary changes around the department with the higher ranking individuals, in order to jumpstart a new era within the sheriff’s office.
I would also like to get from supervisors, the deputies and the officers that they supervise, their understanding and their feeling about how they’re being supervised, and readdress that as well.
It was a different era with the Clarke administration, and they had different expectations for how they made their promotions. And it wasn’t necessarily off of the hardest working, the best at their job. Sometimes it was a lot of who you know, not what you know type of dealings. And I want to do away with the cronyism and you’re getting a position just off of being a buddy. We need to do away with that.
I feel like that’s eroded the sheriff’s office and the prestige of even being promoted. I’ve talked to deputies that have left that say, they wouldn’t even want a promotion within this agency because of how it’s run.
Do you think there are any policies that can be implemented at the Milwaukee County Jail that would address or prevent the many deaths we’ve seen there in recent years? And what would those be?
First off, back to the culture, I believe, once that starts changing, and we’re able to get our staffing, because the staffing is so bad, no matter what policies we have, we wouldn’t be able uphold them because we just don’t have enough people.
A couple of weeks ago, for the first time in my five years there, I was in the booking room with 20-something people by myself. That’s how bad the staffing level has gotten.
It’s unsafe for the individuals, occupants in our care and the people working there. I am happy that it hasn’t been any more unfortunate situations where there was deaths, but it’s set up almost every day for something bad to happen because of our such bad staffing levels right now. My heart goes out to the individuals that do show up to work because they’re doing two and three and four jobs as one. When they leave out of there after 12 and 16 hour shifts they are worn out because the amount of stress that’s put on them for what needs to be done. Trying to keep up with just you know our 30-minute inspections. When the nurse comes on the floor, whether they’re doing med pass or detox medication pass, sometimes the individual that has to keep up with those inspections also has to go and assist them with an individual. Then they’re right back there doing a full inspection and trying to adhere to the needs of individuals that are in the cells.
It’s a lot right now with very minimal staff. We get new individuals there as well. They’re brushed through training, so they feel ill-equipped, they haven’t been trained properly. And then they’re expected to do the job of two and three people. And that’s another thing that’s causing people to walk right out the door as soon as they start.
Former [correctional officers] have said that the conditions at the jail are a major reason they quit their job. Do you have any ideas for improving those conditions?
First off, is paying attention, listening.
I have heard that and that’s the reason why I put my name in this race, because I’ve seen the individuals that are currently on the ballot have been complacent with this type of thing for a long time. Two of them, Barkow and Beal, came up through the Clarke administration. That’s kind of all they know.
I don’t look at my experience as being a hindrance whatsoever. Because if you have 25 years experience of doing the wrong thing, and I’m just starting out with five and doing the right thing. I think I’d be an elite as far as where I want to lead the agency. I’ve had plenty of deputies and officers telling me that, “hey, if you win I would come back, because I would actually know that things would be changing for the better.”
Do you support quality of life improvements in the jail like free phone calls and better food?
My background is in mental health. I know how quickly a negative situation with no resources, no coping mechanisms provided, how your mental health can deteriorate. And you can even make your bad situation worse. Not thinking correctly. Because you just feel like hopeless.
I would do away with the drone program. It’s a huge waste of money and has brought pretty much no benefit to the public or the sheriff’s office.
I think it’s a huge waste of funds and resources that can be rediverted into maybe some type of rehabilitation programs. We have individuals, over 1,000 individuals that are in jail, that get zero resources to keep them from maybe reoffending. Or you know, it could be substance abuse. They come into the booking room and they’ll get screened, and then we will adhere to their medical needs, whether that be detox or alcohol, drugs, whatever. But upon release, they’re just shown the door with no type of resources.
I would love for a handout [to be given to them] because there’s so many different great organizations within the city. We just have to connect people with it. So if we knew this individual came in severely detoxing from alcohol and he made some poor decisions while he was under the influence, maybe if we gave him some flat pamphlets upon release and resources that he can either seek some help or counseling or something to be there as an aid to keep them from reoffending and ending up right back in the jail.
Do you support the expansion of the CART program?
I do like the CART program a lot. I would love to. And the expansion would be within the jail. Some of the officers, deputies a lot of times they have a better rapport with individuals than our psych-social workers. So if we had a a little crisis team or just a mental health officer that’s mental health certified, that can be a point of contact, to assess individuals that are going through little crisis situations or we know that they’ve just… through there and they’re just awaiting transportation to prison. That’s an area and a red flag for us. That’s to say, “hey, maybe this individual might need some attention here. Maybe we can speak to them and provide some type of resources while they’re still incarcerated before they’re transferred out of there.
Given that some supervisors have attempted to reduce the MCSO budget in the past and will likely continue to do so. Do you plan to work with them? Or how would you work with them in the future?
Absolutely, that’s another major disconnect that I feel needs to be mended.
The county supervisors are the voice of the individuals who elected them, which is our residents. We should be working with the county supervisors. I should not be withholding any information I shouldn’t be telling them. They want to reduce our budget, because we’re not even honest and transparent about where the $50 million is spent and how it’s actually being spent. I wouldn’t trust that either.
I told [Supervisor] Ryan Clancy personally, that I can’t tell you that I’m going to decrease the budget, because with so many different holes that are within the department right now, I can’t stick to that. What I [can] stick to is saying, “hey, here’s how much we have. And here’s exactly how it’s being spent. And if there is something that we can, you know, do away with, I’m all about that.”
It sounds like you have some ideas for increasing the transparency of the agency. What are those?
For one, as a lieutenant within the sheriff’s office, I don’t know, there’s not even a secret report that comes out that tells us you. Everybody’s left in the unknown, just follow orders. And you know, kind of an authoritarian type of establishment here that was put in place by Clarke, and essentially been left like that.
Something I’ve heard you mentioned a lot is the culture and specifically how essentially the culture in the agency really has not changed since the Clarke years, and perhaps you’ve already gone over this, but is there something specific you can point at to illustrate that point?
Specifically, you have your Patrol Division, you have your Courts Division, you have the Detention Services Bureau and Airport Division. So each one of those divisions has an inspector and under them is usually a top captain, like, Captain [William] Duckert is the assistant jail commander. Those were all put in place by either Clarke or Schmidt.
So it’s still the same kind of philosophies that are being pushed down, the same way of supervising that remains the same. Duckert, to be quite frank, I wouldn’t trust him to run a hotdog stand from the things that I’ve witnessed and seen how he operates. And yet he’s been allowed to remain in his division.
Could you expand on that?
I mean, I could go on for days here. So about a year and a few months ago, because I was outspoken within the jail, he started kind of messing with me. I was moved from third shift to second shift. And I’m starting to get little petty write ups, different things like this. Then I kind of went above his head, and I ended up having a meeting with Denita Ball and [chief legal and compliance officer] Molly Zillig. And they actually implemented some of the things that I was talking about.
I said that the training needed to be looked into and re-evaluated on how new officers were trained. And that day is when an individual was able to take their life. And it was in a housing unit where it was brand new officers. And then it was sent out that no brand new officers can work within those housing units until they’ve been fully kind of trained. I’ve been seeing this coming.
The interview was edited for clarity. Ball did not respond to a request to be interviewed.
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- Race for Sheriff: Interview with Mohamed Awad - Graham Kilmer - Aug 7th, 2022
- Race for Sheriff: Interview with Thomas Beal - Graham Kilmer - Aug 7th, 2022
- Race for Sheriff: Interview with Brian Barkow - Graham Kilmer - Aug 7th, 2022
Read more about 2022 Sheriff Race here