When Kalvin Barrett was appointed Dane County Sheriff in May 2021, his goals included advancing diversity on the force, keeping the inmate population down, and developing a bond of trust between law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve. One year later, Barrett continues to push the envelope as Dane County’s first African American sheriff.
One of Barrett’s key goals when entering this position was to continue advancing diversity on the force, and he has continued to champion that cause.
“In the past year, 30% of our hires have been people of color, 30% of our hires have been females and over 70% of our promotions have been female this year,” said Barrett. “So, when I talk about the hiring of our workforce reflecting our community – that’s the key. It’s not just about hiring – it’s about putting them in positions of influence where their life experiences can help us grow and move forward as a sheriff’s office.”
However, staffing has remained a tough nut to crack given the national staffing shortages seen across the nation. For Barrett, although staffing is at a critical level, it’s about more than just getting people into positions – it’s about getting the right people into the right positions.
“We are at a critical level when it comes to hiring – we’re down around 50 positions so that is top of my priority list. We want to create systems and hire people that match our core values, our mission and our vision, so when we bring them into our agency, we’re really providing them with a career of serving the community,” said Barrett. “Being appropriately staffed is more than just hiring. Because if you put the wrong person in the wrong place at the wrong time there can be dire consequences – not only for that person, not only for the community, not only for our agency, but for our profession worldwide. And for us, good staffing means we have the right person, at the right place, at the right time, doing the right thing.”
Barrett admits that finding the right fit can take time.
“It’s hard when you’re going through a list of 50 and you’re only finding a handful that fit what you need moving forward. But we will do that because we have a dedicated group of deputies, we have a dedicated group of sheriff’s office staff and employees that are willing to work hard and go that extra mile to ensure we’re bringing on the right people to our agencies.”
Another top priority for Barrett and the Dane County Sheriff’s Department as a whole is keeping the inmate population down and addressing ongoing inhumane conditions at the County Jail building.
“The building we have now – the city/county building – was built in 1953. And at that time, think about where we were as a society. 1953 is before Brown vs. the Board of Education. 1953 was before the Equal Voting Rights Act. 1953 was before Loving v. Virginia when states could outlaw interracial marriage. When you think about all of that, you realize it was built to do one thing – it was built to be harsh and to punish and that’s it. It wasn’t meant to rehabilitate,” said Barrett. “What we’re looking to have now is a building to rehabilitate. No more cages, reduce or greatly eliminate solitary confinement, provide vocational training, provide educational training. If we’re overcrowded, then we don’t have space to do the vocational training. We are working right now to bring in our trades, our carpenters, our unions to come in and start providing our residents with training so that when they get released, they’re going right out into jobs.”
Barrett hopes these measures will help set people up for success, as well as reduce recidivism. Overall, Barrett wants to humanize those who are incarcerated and have society view them as friends, neighbors, and family that simply made mistakes. He is also focused on reducing crime and being engaged in the community to help build trust, build relationships and preempt crimes from happening.
“Understanding that the mentality of trying to arrest our way out of societal issues is not the way to go. If someone is drug-dependent, arresting them has its limits – at some point it stops becoming effective. We have to re-evaluate what we’re doing because the cycle of arresting and releasing and arresting and releasing isn’t working and if we don’t get to the root cause of what’s happening then we’re just going to stay in that cycle,” said Barrett. “And that’s where I feel like where we’re at right now – we’re so focused on the reactionary side of arresting and incarcerating and we have to get to the root cause of why they’re committing that crime on the front end, which would then lead to us not having to be reactive on the back end.”
With that mentality in mind, Barrett has partnered with local organizations and applied for grants to help improve some of these situations. One initiative he’s particularly proud of is the Mental Health Tablet program. Because there are only three embedded crisis workers in the Dane County Police Department, these tablets help officers who are out in the field connect people experiencing mental health crises to the appropriate parties, instead of having to resort to arrests.
Barrett has also worked with local orgs to do a Gift Cards for Guns initiative, where residents are rewarded for turning over guns they have in their possession with gift cards to local businesses. In addition to these efforts, the Dane County Police Department also has eight community deputies, who work in these outlying towns and villages to build relationships. They do that by handing out turkeys on Thanksgiving and Hams at Christmas, as well as bringing groups of young adults in to educate them about things like hygiene, nutrition, and more.
Community officers can spend more time planning or attending community events, as well, but Barrett says that doesn’t mean the rest of the force isn’t also dedicated to engaging with the community.
“This position has taught me the importance of relationships and that building relationships is the key to everything. Those relationships allow the community to trust our intentions and to trust what I do as sheriff,” said Barrett. “One way we can improve our culture here is to really share the mindset that community policing or communities’ deputies is everyone. It’s not just the eight deputies that do it – though that’s what their job title says – it’s all of our responsibility to help and build that community.”