MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN — By the time Earnell Lucas waves me up the walkway of the large stone house in Downer Woods, he’s taken off the light, patterned suit jacket he was wearing to vote at the church nearby.
It’s in the 80s before noon, hours before voters here will make him the next Milwaukee County Sheriff, and the afternoon schedule is crowded with eleventh-hour campaign events.
“I’m still that young boy that was born in a housing project here in Milwaukee, raised by his grandmother by the Golden Rule, who gave 25 years of his life serving that community,” Lucas says across the large pastel glass centerpiece his wife Linda chose for their antique dining table during a vacation to Vancouver. “That young boy inside of me saw what’s going on here in the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Department, and not just here but around the country… and I thought I was needed here at this time.”
His voice, all contagious warmth when he recalled meeting Linda in a line for tickets to see Luther Vandross and Anita Baker decades ago, cools some when talk turns professional. The job he’s been asking his hometown to give him is a real fixer-upper, scarred by decades of brash politicking from the top and brutish conduct from some of the rank and file. The challenges of taking over a job defined for decades by firebrand right-wing sheriff David Clarke bring out an impassioned firmness.
“I’ve come to instill a culture that’s going to allow the deputies and correctional officers and medical officers to do their jobs,” Lucas says, displaying a thoughtful frankness about the law enforcement profession that’s been his home and benefactor for 42 years. “If there’s transgressions, they’re going to be addressed…Discipline is going to be swift [and] very public, so that the public knows that we’re not going to tolerate individuals violating the trust we have here in our community.”
Lucas will draw on every ounce of his immense charisma when he begins serving in Clarke’s old job in January. He’s been away from day-to-day policework for almost two decades, heading up security operations for Major League Baseball — a lucrative job he loves but is ready to leave to help his city again.
Lucas grew up in a center-city housing project called Hillside in the 1960s. He was 9 years old the night black Milwaukeeans got pelted with bottles and rocks for daring to march across the 16th Street Viaduct to the white south side in protest of housing segregation, which is still worse here than in any other U.S. metropolitan area half a century later. Hillside was still home a year later when an assassin shot Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and when an encounter with a white Milwaukee cop at age 12 made him decide the police force was his future.
“Discipline is going to be swift [and] very public, so that the public knows that we’re not going to tolerate individuals violating the trust we have here.”
Lucas was making a grocery run for his grandmother when the cop rolled down his squad car window to accuse him of stealing a woman’s purse. Not buying Lucas’ polite denial, the cop said he was “gonna run you over there and have her identify you, and when she identifies you I’m gonna run you downtown,’” Lucas recalls, half grinning.
“I said sir, you can do that, but if she doesn’t identify me you’re gonna run me back over here and help me get these groceries home, because my grandma’s gonna be pretty upset if I don’t get these groceries home.”
The officer gave up and sped off. When Lucas walked into the station house less than a decade later for his first day as a full officer, he spotted the same cop who’d profiled him as a child.
“I walked up to him and asked him that question none of us ever want to get asked – do you remember me? And I just said, sir, it’s because of you that I wanted to join the police force. Because you could’ve done anything you wanted to do with me,” Lucas says. The two are friends to this day, he added.
It’s one of Lucas’ two signature stories of his 25-year career with the Milwaukee Police Department, before baseball made him rich enough to move Linda and their kids into the handsome home at the top of the bluff above the lakefront where they danced to Luther and Anita years prior.
The other is the time he got shot, on New Year’s Day 1982, after responding to a noise complaint to find a man barricaded in an apartment near his old childhood neighborhood with a 12-gauge shotgun. There are still pellets lodged in his temple and orbital bone, and the joint where his jaw connects to his skull sometimes goes funky on him nearly 40 years later.
If police are a rare breed, the cop who comes back to the job in his sixties after surviving one shootout and then achieving this kind of financial security is almost extinct. Lucas describes his return as a calling.
“We had a sheriff who had no regard for immigrant communities, for communities of color,” Lucas says of Clarke’s reign, when people died in the county jail at an alarming rate.
“We’ve lost our way in terms of protecting the people that we’ve sworn to serve. I figured, I’ve had a wonderful life. My wife and I have gotten around the world, baseball has been wonderful to me, and I figure it’s time for me to do something with what time I have left on this earth for the betterment of my community.”
The community agrees. The news networks call the race less than an hour after polls close that night. He’s beaten the brakes off of Acting Sheriff Richard Schmidt, who was probably doomed by years as Clarke’s right-hand man but further toxified himself by preaching that battered women should “submit” to their abuser husbands.
The win isn’t just a referendum against Schmidt and Clarke. Lucas appeals to a wide swathe of residents, many of whom celebrate with him at the city’s 92-year-old Eagle’s Club on primary night. Lucas had the backing of both the mayor and the local prosecutor as well as the city’s immigrant grassroots. His promise to stop Clarke and Schmidt’s practice of honoring federal immigration orders without a judge’s warrant will mean 100 or 150 fewer deportations a year from the area, activists from Voces de la Frontera said at the party.
But the endorsement of a new black grassroots group on the north side highlights the core of his coalition: Black Milwaukee natives who look like him, but never achieved the economic exit velocity that carried him out of the Hillside projects and into this tastefully decorated home in Downer Woods.
The day after Lucas’s landslide win, the wooden steps of the house Vaun Mayes rents creak underfoot as he mounts the porch. Paint peels from the sagging roofline overhead as he pulls open a front door with an empty rectangle where the glass or screen should be.
Rounding to the left inside, he points out five Apple computers crowded into a space the size of a mudroom.
“That’s our computer lab,” Mayes says, daubing sweat from his forehead.
The decaying two-story Victorian is the new community center for Program the Parks, one of almost half a dozen nonprofits the heavily tattooed Milwaukee native has started on the city’s north side. The computers are donated, as is the screen-printing setup he uses to teach kids to make shirts, and the freezer that holds their food.
Here in Sherman Park, about six miles from where Lucas lives today but much closer to the Hillside projects where he grew up, Mayes is trying to be all things to all people. He’s a camp counselor, a community first responder to house fires and fistfights and shootings, a watchdog upholding black people’s rights when the police come around, sometimes even a private detective when a neighborhood beef prompts a threat against the playground that’s the primary gathering spot for hundreds of kids who can’t afford memberships to the local Boys and Girls Club.
It would have been uphill work even before the 2016 riots here, triggered by former Milwaukee Police Department officer Dominique Heaggan-Brown’s killing of 23-year-old Sylville Smith. Heaggan-Brown was acquitted of homicide charges in the case, though he wound up in prison anyway after community members exposed his habit of drugging and sexually assaulting people in city bars.
The riots reshaped the neighborhood physically and spiritually. Buildings that burned two years ago are still under reconstruction as Mayes walks me around the area, explaining how Sherman Park had been on edge well before Smith was killed. An employee of the gas station that was burned during the riots had fired shots at a group of kids months earlier, Mayes said, and received only a “disorderly conduct” ticket for the incident.
“I’ve been in your store, and I’ve seen how the second these kids walk out of your store you call ‘em bitches and monkeys and n******,” he said as we passed the construction site where owners are still rebuilding the station. One block over and another up, we reach the spot where Smith was shot down, a quarter-mile from Mayes’ nascent computer lab.
The park itself is in the Sheriff’s Department jurisdiction. But it’s mostly city cops that Mayes’ cadre of amateur first responders, de-escalators, and civil rights observers have to wrangle here. With a crime rate dramatically higher than the city’s and a median income dramatically lower, Sherman Park illustrates how the conditions Lucas escaped persist — and how the work Mayes and others do can sometimes be even more effective than heavy policing.
The vitality and breadth of Mayes’ role in Sherman Park is on constant display as we walk. He checks on a man passed out at the edge of the park, then stands and watches as three police drive onto the grass to talk to him. Teenagers shout quick greetings to Mayes way as we pass, younger kids running up to hug him around one leg.
“[T]hey do backwards stuff, and they trick people and trick themselves that it’s the answer.”
One boy no older than 12 rushes up to tell him police arrested one of his friends the day before. After promising to reach out to the arrested kid’s mom, Mayes is blunt about the teenager’s likely situation.
“His acting out is because he’s actually very sickly, and he doesn’t want to appear weak in front of the other kids,” he says after the kid wanders back to play. “He likes to ride around in stolen cars and stuff like that, but you take him home and his mom is like, ‘he cries every day.’”
That determination to project a certain image is of a piece with the neighborhood as a whole.
“That’s another thing people don’t understand about our community, because we so poor, the shit that we do, we spend a lot of our time trying to not look as poor as we are,” he said. “I know I need to pay my rent, but I wanna feel good, so I’m gonna buy this car and be somebody to everybody for a second and deal with the consequences later. That’s the type of shit that we do. And that’s a mental reflection of trauma. It’s not just bad decision-making, it’s a lot more to that.”
Neither the youth center staff nor the city cops they call in seem to know what they’re dealing with here.“Traumatized people are a whole different format. The police should understand that, the Boys and Girls Club should understand that,” he said. “It’s the reciprocation of energy that you put out.”
Most of Mayes’ job is trying to channel the kids’ version of that impulse to disguise hardship. He uses donor money to pay teenagers for raking leaves or shoveling snow. For kids younger than that, it’s mostly about trying to wear them out with play until curfew hits at 10:00. But that’s a lot tougher than you’d think judging from an overhead view of the 20-acre park.
There’s exactly one basketball court. It sits between six disused tennis courts and a large, immaculate baseball field with signs for the MLB’s “Play Ball” youth engagement initiative pinned to the home plate fence.
The ballfield is chained and locked at every entrance. The last time any of these kids got inside was when the teenager arrested on election day hopped the fence in his unsuccessful flight from cops. Mayes says the youth center staff won’t let his kids use it for kickball unless they come up with a $400 registration fee per team, plus money for jerseys.
The padlocked diamond offers a permanent image of the benevolence community’s lousy aim, distant do-gooders fooling themselves in Sherman Park. An event last summer where the Boys & Girls Club brought rapper Lil Boosie to speak to its paying elementary-aged members inside the building stands out to him as an even more painful missed opportunity.
“First of all kids this age shouldn’t be listening to no damn Lil Boosie. But the kids he should’ve been talking to were out here,” Mayes said, gesturing toward the crowded playground. “The kids out here stealing cars, who listen to his music and think that shit is real, he need to come out here and tell them it ain’t cool to steal cars, it ain’t cool to go to jail.”
“But they do backwards stuff, and they trick people and trick themselves that it’s the answer to this stuff.”
The gap between how people tell themselves they’re making a difference and what actually needs doing in Sherman Park is a frequent refrain for Mayes – and one that local media has occasionally noticed.
Shortly after the riots, local nonprofits discovered that a state economic development commission’s claims of having created almost 500 jobs in Sherman Park were false. The companies weren’t even located in the city, let alone in the area where Mayes keeps the peace. The cycle of police violence, civil disturbance, promises of public investment, and lack of follow-through is part of the neighborhood’s history.
What little money has shown up two years later has routed to diligently branded development projects like a small-business incubator and a Mayes imitator called “Activate The Parks,” said activist Bianca Shaw. His original youth group and other efforts are getting by on the charity of locals and online donors.
Mayes’ group was initially awarded a few thousand dollars in funding, he said, but the money is being retracted now that the police have accused him of conspiring to firebomb the District 7 police station during the 2016 riots.
Mayes, who rescued a Journal-Sentinel intern from angry protesters during the unrest, denies the charges entirely. He says that in the days following Smith’s death, a large group of out-of-towners came to Sherman Park and tried to rally angry locals to march on a heavily barricaded nearby police station. He told people not to join them.
“We literally had a class with me telling everybody, don’t fucking follow them.”
The police say Mayes helped make Molotov cocktails and spoke with people who wanted to go down the street and chuck them at the police station. Their case relies in part on having found bottles of Mike’s Hard Lemonade in his apartment, and molotovs made with the same internationally-distributed brand of beer in a dumpster.
Mayes believes police witnesses are being coerced to lie in service of a politically motivated prosecution, state-sponsored revenge for both for his years of police-oversight activism in Sherman Park and for his prominent presence at a 2015 protest where some people burned an American flag.
He isn’t letting the looming case slow down his violence prevention work. After walking the neighborhood for a few hours, we stop back past the community center so he can freshen up in the upstairs room where he sleeps.
He has to go to a community meeting where the city’s Office of Violence Prevention will solicit feedback on how they’re doing so far. It’s happening in Hillside, the same housing project where Milwaukee County’s new sheriff grew up.
“I go back to Dr. King.”
Earnell Lucas is staring thoughtfully down at the congressional seals on his cufflinks. Our election-day conversation has turned to the other kind of on-duty shootings from the one he was closest to – the kind where the person who ends up dead never shot a cop – and the broader distrust police have earned from black communities over the years.
It reminds him of the moment in Letter from a Birmingham Jail where King acknowledged the distinction between what white civic leaders could and could not deliver to the suit-and-tie marchers of that much earlier era of mass protest for black liberation.
“My commitment to this community is that for the 8, 10, 12 hours that an individual is under the employ of the Milwaukee county sheriff’s office, while they may have other commitments or bring other biases to the job, during those hours… they are going to treat everyone with dignity and respect,” he says. “If they are found in any way in violation, have broken that trust, have violated policies, then there’s going to be punishment. It’s going to be swift, and it’s going to be public.”
Though Lucas sometimes says things you’ve heard before, he’s got a way of reinvigorating the familiar – in part because it’s clear how forcefully he believes what he’s saying. His unusual candor helps, too, on the role of police unions in delaying accountability, and the way shift sergeants can tell reformer chiefs what they want to hear while telling street cops to stick to the old ways.
Forthcoming and eager on most subjects, Lucas is a bit tougher to draw out on police killings and where he sees the line between protest and riot. He’s cagey about the Baltimore Orioles game played to an empty stadium in 2015 after riots over the police killing of Freddie Gray, calling it “challenging to say the least” but not offering an opinion either way on the tactics community members employed there. On the unrest in Charlotte, North Carolina a year later after the police killing of Keith Lamont Scott, he similarly sticks to his professional perspective as an MLB employee. “Fortunately the protesters did not target the baseball stadium,” he says, though he instructed the minor-league Charlotte Knights to shelter in place in their stadium anyhow.
He’s got a ready answer on the double consternation of being seen as a sellout by fellow African Americans and an unwelcome presence by white people who called the police — “It just makes you more determined to earn the respect and trust of those individuals” — but on-duty shootings are less familiar ground. Even when the man who put buckshot under his right eyebrow permanently got his reward that day in ’82, Lucas wasn’t the one who had to do the killing.
“[N]o police officer has within his heart to want to shoot and kill someone.”
“I don’t begrudge some of the officers in some of the situations you’ve alluded to, [but] then there are some that warrant a little further (scrutiny), it gets that eyeball test,” he says. “The officer was probably within his right, and many cases was adjudicated as such. But in many cases he could’ve chose…”
Lucas trails off without finishing the thought, then switches gears.
“I don’t think no police officer has within his heart to want to shoot and kill someone. Because you have to live with that regardless. You become a victim in many cases as much as the person you end up shooting. You have to bear the weight of that,” he says. “I don’t know what it’s like to walk in the shoes of an officer who’s shot and killed someone. But I can tell you from those that I do know, I don’t think that’s an easy burden for them to bear.”
Lucas says his team handled the situation on New Year’s Day 1982 exactly the right way, both for those pre-video times and for today. “Many people will say, well if you had your situation to do over again, would you have just shot the guy?” he says. “Would I just open up target practice on a guy who we’d given commands to put a gun down? No. Because we have means and ways to de-escalate the situation, to quell the situation. We’ve just got to wait for all of it to come together.”
Lucas got shot in an era when people – especially men, especially cops – weren’t encouraged to master the therapeutic language of trauma. After six months on the couch, flinching reflexively at guns in TV shows, he simply picked up and got back to it.
“I said ‘I’ve gotta get back up,’” he remembers.
Getting paid to be present for the worst day of someone else’s life almost every day of your own leaves police traumatized too. The old-school get-over-it mentality toward trauma might help in places like Sherman Park, if officers use it to connect with citizens, or the symmetry might just mean everyone’s operating on the edge on both sides.
Lucas sees the higher standards of conduct and accountability he means to set as much as a favor to his staff as to the people Mayes works with in places like Sherman Park.
“I’m doing it for those who work and live every day adhering to the highest standards of the profession,” he says. “I know I can’t change what’s in an individual’s heart. But I know that while you’re wearing that badge and serving this community, if I have any say, if there’s any instance of breaking the public trust, then it’s going to be addressed and dealt with. I think we all benefit from a leader who says that and stands by that.”
Where Lucas’ own experience of being profiled by a white cop inspired him to a kind of twice-as-good determination to join the job and do it honorably, younger generations of black men and women have begun to reject that kind of determined self-proving. Indignities breed indignation, suspicion its own like seeds. Lucas’s promise to change county practices on detained immigrants is courageous but also comparatively simple. Sherman Park’s issues present harder questions for a police leader, especially a black one, to untangle in the material day-to-day of the job.
Some of Lucas’s most important support came from black organizers on Milwaukee’s north side who are diligently re-breaking grassroots ground that politicians have ignored in every season but the alternating autumns when there’s votes to be harvested. The people they’ve encouraged to vote Lucas for Sheriff are going to want more than familiar words about accountability and professionalism — when Lucas’s time inevitably comes to explain a police killing, sure, but also before then, on matters of budget allocations to policing instead of other, more nurturing public services.
Exactly how the central Milwaukee kid made good will answer those calls remains to be seen. Sweating under TV lights at the Eagle’s Club election party, Lucas returns to familiar election-night language.
“I’m convinced that the road doesn’t get any easier from here,” Lucas said in his victory speech. “They said it all culminates and ends tonight, and I said no, no, actually the work just begins.”