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‘Be a lifelong learner:’ Chief deputy breaks down barriers in Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office

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Denita Ball

Denita Ball

MILWAUKEE -- When Denita Ball signed up to serve at Milwaukee Police Department in 1985, she didn’t plan to stay long. Nearly 34 years later, Ball is breaking down barriers at the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office, serving as the first female to hold the highest ranking office.

As chief deputy, she oversees day-to-day operations and executes tasks in coordination with the sheriff.

“I would love to think about how I got here,” laughed Chief Deputy Ball. “But when you’re sitting in this just got to get it done.”

Denita Ball

Denita Ball

But her journey to Milwaukee didn’t begin in Wisconsin. Ball was 12 years old when her grandmother passed away in Arkansas. Her mother brought her to Milwaukee shortly after at age 14. In the years to follow, Ball transitioned into foster care until she was 18.

“I’ve always used my life experiences and how I wanted to make something better for myself, my family, my community,” she said.

'I didn’t think this was the path for me'

When Ball entered the academy for the Milwaukee Police Department, she intended to use her experience toward law school.

“I even told my recruiter that, ‘I’m only going to be on the job five years.' He said, 'OK,' she said. “Five years later, he said, ‘You’re still here?!’”

Denita Ball

Denita Ball

During her career at MPD, Ball was promoted to sergeant in 1993, lieutenant in 2000, captain in 2001 and deputy inspector in 2005. Many of those years she served at MPD's District 4.

Ball said one of the most rewarding parts of her job was when people approached her about making a difference in their experience with police; from domestic violence complaints to car crashes.

“At the time, you just don’t know the impact that you have on a person,” said Ball.

For Ball, many of those police officers surrounded her through a challenge she didn’t see coming; a lump underneath her arm.

“We did tests and came back with positive diagnosis for cancer,” she said.

Denita Ball

Denita Ball

Denita Ball

Denita Ball

For the next year and a half, Ball’s family, co-workers and faith helped strengthen her toward recovery.

Denita BallAfter more than 25 years with Milwaukee police, Ball left the badge for a job in higher education. She earned her doctorate after authoring a dissertation on lethal force, and oversaw the criminal justice program at the three campuses of Bryant and Stratton.

“I thought once I started teaching…I would just be in academia, not in law enforcement,” said Ball.

During her career, Ball applied for chief of police jobs in Milwaukee in 2008 and Quincy, Florida in 2010. She was a finalist for both.

“Of course, I was heartbroken that I didn’t get it, but when I started reflecting on it and thinking about it, I knew it was not time for me,” said Ball.

‘I want to get it right’

Denita BallWhen now-Sheriff Earnell Lucas approached Ball about the job, she said it was a decision she thought long and hard about. But ultimately, she felt, she believed in his vision for the agency.

“I feel the opportunity would not have come to me unless it was meant for me,” she said. “Everything was in line for me to take this position and excel at it. That’s my goal.”

She joined an executive team with two other women, including Faithe Colas and Molly Zillig.

“What Sheriff Lucas was looking for was someone who could do the job,” she said. “I happened to be a female.”

Ball said she never expected to become chief deputy, but everything in her life has led to this moment.

“You want to always be prepared,” she said. “You may never get that opportunity, but if it comes, you want to be prepared to do that.”

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