Sheriff Inquiry Leads to Board Fracas
Board removes jail inquiry from committee after process falls apart. Issue will go to full board.
An inquiry launched by the Milwaukee County Board into the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office (MSCO) and the Milwaukee County Jail has largely run off the rails.
Supervisors began working on an audit of the MCSO and the jail early in 2022 following a string of deaths at the facility. Ultimately, the board adopted a resolution making a large request of records and reports on policies, organizational structure and potential solutions moving forward.
Conflict Begins Immediately
The issue was supposed to come under the purview of the board’s Committee on Judiciary, Law Enforcement and General Services, chaired by Sup. Ryan Clancy, But shortly before the documents related to the inquiry were made public, Clancy found himself in hot water for saying law enforcement work has “neither dignity nor value.” Clancy defended the statement in the media.
Then, once the reports responding to inquiry became public, Clancy quickly released a public statement characterizing the response from the sheriff as “predictably and disappointingly, an empty grab for more money, and a stark refusal to engage with policies surrounding the many in-custody deaths that continue to happen.”
In response tot this attack, Sheriff Denita Ball responded with one of her own.
“It is abundantly clear that Supervisor Clancy does not intend to engage with this report in good faith,” Ball said. “Instead of debating with a supervisor who feels that the tireless work of our dedicated Law Enforcement and Correctional personnel, has no ‘dignity or value,’ we will continue working with our partners across our community to ensure safety in the jail and promote peace and security in our neighborhoods.”
Argument, Public Comment Runs Out The Clock
When the MCSO report finally went before a judiciary committee for the first time, discussion of any of the material in the report was bogged down by time constraints and familiar disagreements over the sheriff’s budget.
Under Clancy, the committee collected ample public opinion in a freewheeling, back-and-forth manner, with members of the public giving testimony, then MCSO officials being called up afterward to respond to the testimony. This included testimony from a still grieving Kerrie Hirte, who is the mother of Cilivea Thyrion, who committed suicide in the jail in 2022. It also included statements and questioning directed at the MCSO that ranged from critique to invective.
Engagement with the report or jail policies was cut short by the disagreement between MCSO officials and Clancy. The MCSO says that chronic understaffing is the number one challenge facing the jail and that solving the problem is paramount to addressing the crisis of deaths in the jail. Clancy disagrees that staffing is the primary problem and characterizes the MCSO’s position as a “grab for more money.”
The committee spent three and a half hours on the report, largely collecting public comment. It followed approximately four hours of testimony and discussion on other items before the committee. The meeting was ended when public comment was exhausted, as county board staff had been kept after-hours to keep the meeting running.
Board Divided Over How to Proceed
A week later, when the full board met, supervisors sought to take the item out of the control of Clancy’s committee.
Sup. Shawn Rolland sought to move the report to the Committee on Audit for the board’s next meeting cycle in December, “Certainly, I know some people have concerns about the venue and the leadership, and I think those are warranted,” he said. “But I also think further conversation about this [the MCSO and jail deaths] is warranted as well.”
Clancy warned that removing the report from the committee he chairs would make the board, “complicit in any future deaths that are going to happen and that continue to happen in this institution.” He said his committee spent hours collecting questions from the public and that the answers should be heard in that committee.
“The public has been asking for accountability,” Clancy said.
Sup. Deanna Alexander, who co-chairs judiciary with Clancy, said, “Although I serve in leadership, and alongside and generally in support of the chairperson of that committee, I do not recommend that this item be sent to that committee [judiciary] at this time.”
“Yes, maybe the last meeting got a little bit out of control,” said Sup. Juan Miguel Martinez, who serves on the judiciary committee. “But we are dealing with very emotional [issues] and people are being emotional, because it’s a very emotional subject.” Martinez said the item could be “more controlled” next time.
“I mean, let’s be honest, it was a disaster,” said Sup. Steve Taylor.
Sup. Staskunas said Clancy’s “agenda basically, is to stick it to the Sheriff’s Department. It’s not a matter of correcting things for him with the Sheriff’s Department. It’s for making points.”
Sup. Sequanna Taylor reminded her colleagues that there were family members of people who have died in the jail watching their meeting, and asked her colleagues to practice the decorum they often preach.
“The idea that the sheriff’s department would be as unresponsive in a report that has stakes as high as these are — this is literally a matter of life and death — is personally frustrating, admittedly,” Clancy said, “and clearly very frustrating to the dozens of people who showed up to speak in public in judiciary.”
Sup. Peter Burgelis pushed to have the board take up the issue during a meeting of the whole body, removing it from the traditional committee process. “I think it’s not the responsibility of one particular committee or the other to handle this,” Burgelis said. “I think this is the responsibility for each and every county board supervisor.”
The board ultimately voted in favor of this proposal from Burgelis. Clancy released a statement after the meeting supporting the move “despite the repeated attacks on my character and office.”
That meeting will be led by Chairwoman Marcelia Nicholson.
“My opinion and experience with this issue is informed by the fact that I grew up in the poorest zip code in the state: 53206,” Nicholson told her colleagues. There are two sides to the issue, she noted, and “I don’t agree with either one of them. I’m somewhere in the middle where most of us are. I think these personal attacks are distracting from the work that needs to be done to reform our criminal justice system.”
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