Graham Kilmer
Race for Sheriff

Interview with Thomas Beal

Beal wants full staffing, better mental health evaluation at jail.

By - Aug 7th, 2022 05:59 pm

Candidate for Milwaukee County Sheriff Thomas Beal. Photo by provided by Thomas Beal.

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.

Three candidates submitted the necessary signatures to appear on the ballot, Denita Ball, Brian Barkow and Thomas Beal, and a fourth candidate, Mohamed Awad, is running as a registered write-in.

Below is our interview with Beal. The candidate is currently a captain working as a commander in the Milwaukee County Jail. He has been a member of the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office since 1997.

You are reading the second 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 Milwaukee County Sheriff? 

The primary concern right now is to help reduce some of the violent crime and, and reckless driving, stolen vehicles. That’s one of the bigger primary concerns that we have just in law enforcement in general. Milwaukee County Sheriff? We have to get this jail in order.

We are running with such limited staffing that a lot of times we find ourselves in situations where we are not able to maintain our core functions within the jail. And when that happens, the inmates sometimes are not able to exercise their rights as inmates. So there’s a couple big concerns. As far as the sheriff’s office is concerned, but outwardly facing, we’re looking at the violent crime, and the stolen vehicles, reckless driving. Inwardly: reforming Milwaukee County Jail. 

What do you think is the biggest challenge facing the MCSO right now? 

The biggest challenge facing the agency right now is staffing. We are in a situation across the agency where we are below our minimum staffing levels. And one of the things that I plan to do as Sheriff is work with the Milwaukee County Board to install incentives, such as hiring bonuses, or some incentive to get people to apply, and also incentives to keep people on the job after they’re hired. We, and Milwaukee County, are just not as competitive as other counties and other agencies when it comes to our staffing and our recruitment and retention.

You mentioned violent crime and reforming the jail as a primary concern of the sheriff. This question kind of will dovetail with previous questions, but what do you think is the biggest law enforcement challenge for the MCSO? And how would you address it? 

Well, one of the biggest law enforcement challenges that I see is community support. Law enforcement in general, throughout the last 10 to 15 years, we’ve lost a lot of community support. So one of the things that I really want to do is bring back the community into law enforcement. The community should have a say, in primarily everything that we do. And I’ll do that through transparency. We have to be a lot more transparent with our citizens so we can get our information out. And the community can trust us as law enforcement. 

Do you have any specific ideas for how to increase transparency? 

Yes, what are the things that I am doing? I’m reducing, or I want to reduce a lot of the bureaucracy as far as getting information out to the public rapidly. One of the biggest challenges, especially in law enforcement, is bureaucracy and the time delay it takes to actually get our information out. So the one thing that I am doing or I want to do is reduce the standardized bureaucracy, stop doing things the way we’ve always done it and start thinking more innovatively as far as dealing with our community. 

What’s one of those bureaucratic impediments? 

One are the biggest bureaucratic things is the way we handle our open records requests. Where it has to go through, sort to speak, a line of people to even get the request looked at. And once it’s reviewed, then it may or may not be honored. One of the things that I want to do is actually change the way we do our open records request once a request is made, it will be reviewed immediately, and it will be acted upon. If there’s something that we cannot release, we will let that person know. It will not just go unanswered. We will let them know all the information that we can and we’ll also let them know why we can’t release certain information. 

There have been some deaths at the jail in recent years. And I know that that’s not a new phenomenon, but there were several in the last year. So are there any policies or practices that you think can be implemented to prevent deaths in the future? 

Yeah. Let me just explain some of the policies that are already in place. One of the policies in place is for our psychiatric social workers when someone starts identifying as suicidal after being evaluated by our mental health staff. One thing that I will change is, instead of a person having to be identified as suicidal, everyone, from the minute that they walk in, or from the time that they walk into the jail, they will have an evaluation with our psychiatric personnel, and then throughout their stay in our jail, they will be reevaluated just to make sure that their mental health has not deteriorated. A lot of the suicides and the deaths in custody, it’s where they, for lack of a better term, slipped through the cracks and weren’t identified as suicidal right at the beginning. And so I believe that if we can start evaluating everyone that comes in that we will have been able to reduce our deaths in custody. 

And what prevents those immediate evaluations today? 

Primarily, what prevents it is that not everyone when they come in is evaluated by our site social workers. When they come in, they’re evaluated by our medical staff. And they’re asked questions such as, “Do you feel like harming yourself? Are you feeling suicidal?” If that person answers no, then their trajectory goes to a different path. If that person says yes, then they’ll be set up with the site social worker. So what I want to do is everyone when they come in, everyone, whether they answer yes or no, that they will at least have an initial evaluation with our psychiatric staff. 

Some former [corrections officers] have said the conditions at the jail are the reason they left their job. Do you have any ideas for how to improve those conditions? 

Absolutely. It primarily goes along with our staff and the former CO.  The officers that work there are bombarded with mandatory overtime. And while they are at work, they’re asked to do multiple different jobs that they weren’t assigned to do at the beginning of the day. So we need to increase our staffing. We need to reimagine how the jail runs. I mean, currently, we’re still running the jail the way it was designed when it was built in 1992. And what we need to do, even with our staffing that we have now, we need to change the way that we deploy our troops so to speak. And at this point, the current administration, they’re just resistant to major changes like that, and any sort of innovative ideas.

So how would you redeploy some of the staffing to address that?

The first thing that I’ve actually been thinking about is reducing some of the unnecessary bureaucratic things that we do as far as when we can have our inmates have their time out of their cells, there are certain times so that we can do it. We need to increase security in the jail through cameras so that we can actually monitor our inmates a lot more closely. And that way that reduces that human that has to be there. So when we have one officer in one area, then another area may not be monitored as closely. We have to involve our technology. We have to just rethink how we’re doing this. One of the first things I’m going to do as sheriff is have a meeting with our jail senior command staff and officers and we’re going to sit down and hash out from the bottom up what we can do to change the jail, so both the officer or the employees, and the inmates can be more comfortable in that jail.

Do you support quality of life improvements for the jail inmates? Specifically, I’m speaking to things that the board has proposed, like free phone calls and improvements in quality of food. 

Absolutely. Here’s the thing. When a person comes into our custody in the Milwaukee County Jail, generally, they are pretrial detainees, which means that they’ve not been convicted, they’ve only been accused of a crime. They’re not serving a sentence. So we can’t punish people just because they came into the jail. The free phone calls and the better food there. I mean, that, to me personally, that is just something that’s just human. We have to be able to let the inmates have time to contact their loved ones. Have it so it’s not costing them lots of money just to make a phone call. As far as the food is concerned, obviously, we want to make sure that they are served nutritious meals daily and at every meal service. 

What do you think of the current food served in the jail?

I know it can be improved. I personally have not had the food in the jail, but I’ve seen it being prepared. I’ve seen the trays. And it’s almost like we can improve it to the point that it’s more appetizing. Right now, it’s simply the basic as far as nutrition goes, but we can make it so it is more appetizing for the inmates. Again, like I said, the people that are in our custody right now, generally, the majority of the people that are in our custody right now, are pretrial detainees, they should not be punished because they’re in jail. Substandard meals, that to me is a punishment. 

Do you support expansion of the CART [Crisis Assessment and Response Team] program?

Absolutely. Absolutely. The CART program, and I have to say the CART program is a great first step in addressing mental health issues inside the community, a lot of times a person would be better served by getting mental health treatment instead of being arrested. And so the CART program that’s a deterrent to arrest that we can use. So I really think that we should expand that program because a lot of issues that happen are generally from mental health and not simple criminal behavior. 

Do you think that the sheriff has the ability to affect the culture of the department? And do you think that the agency needs a shift in its culture as it currently exists? 

Well, the sheriff absolutely has the ability and the obligation to change the culture of the agency. And as sheriff, I want to be able to change the general culture starting with Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office, and hopefully it branches off into all law enforcement agencies. But one of the things is our racial culture, how we interact with people of different cultures, whether it be a white officer dealing with African American subject, or what have you. And a lot of times, these officers, these deputies or officers, they have very little personal experience. So they’re going, no matter how they’re trained, they’re going on their own personal thing.

I wanted to expand the program that we have, where we interact during our training with different cultures, we learn the cultures, we learn how to interact with these different cultures, because some of the things that that we do in law enforcement and not just in Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office, but law enforcement in general, and you do it out of ignorance, we don’t know. So we, as a human, go back to whatever mindset that we had, no matter how we were trained. So yes, as far as the culture of the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office, as sheriff that’s a paramount issue that I definitely want to address.

Given that some supervisors on the county board have attempted to reduce the MCSO budget in recent cycles, and will likely continue to do so, do you have any plans for how to work with them?

I personally have ideas and plans to work with supervisors that are just simply trying to reduce our budget. We need law enforcement in every community, and we have to be able to operate. So as much as they want to continue to slash our budget, they’re cutting into our core functions. And the Wisconsin Constitution mandates that sheriff of every county is responsible for certain things. So we have to be able to at least have our budget to do the functions that we’re constitutionally obligated to do. I don’t want to fight with the county board. I want to actually be able to work with the county board, and all of the members of the county board. And I know it’s contentious at times. But I do think that all of us can at least agree on some things. 

The interview was edited for clarity. Ball did not respond to a request to be interviewed.

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