AP Photo/Ricky Bassman
Editor's Note 4.27.17: Governor Scott Walker is saying he won't call for the resignation of Sheriff Clarke after investigations have revealed that a prisoner died of dehydration in a county jail Clarke overseas after being denied water for a week. The details of the 2016 death of 38-year-old Terrill Thomas reveal that he died of profound dehydration with bipolar disorder as a contributing factor. His death was one of four deaths in the Milwaukee County jail within six months. Democratic state lawmakers are among those calling on Walker to remove Clarke. Here is the backstory on Clarke's impunity.
Just two days after Donald Trump’s stunning upset victory on Election Day, the short lists of prospective Cabinet members for the new administration began turning up in the press. Amid familiar and predictable national GOP figures and business leaders, two men whose highest office to date were in county government stood out—both as prospects to head the Department of Homeland Security. One was the just-ousted former sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, Joe Arpaio. The other was the still-sitting sheriff of Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, David Clarke.
Whether or not he gets an appointment (unannounced as of press time), Clarke’s star is rising.
In July, he delivered an endorsement address for Trump at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio. By then, the African American sheriff was already a media sensation in national rightwing circles, where his fame has skyrocketed thanks to his repeated attacks on the Black Lives Matter movement. On Fox News and before Republican crowds, he can be counted on to discredit and marginalize the resurgent protests against police brutality and the deaths of black men and women at the hands of law enforcement officers.
“You see,” he told the cheering throng in Cleveland, “Donald Trump understands that what can make our nation safe again is a recommitment to a system of justice in which no [one] . . . can claim privilege above the law.”
It’s the sort of sound-bite approach to law enforcement Clarke has been cultivating at home in Wisconsin for more than a decade, championed by local conservative talk radio, before taking it national a few years ago. Interviewed frequently by Fox News and other conservative outlets, Clarke has dubbed himself “The People’s Sheriff” and now hosts a regular talk radio podcast by that name on Glenn Beck’s website The Blaze. (Other conservative cheerleaders have nicknamed him “America’s Sheriff.”)
Clarke’s book, Cop Under Fire, is due out in March 2017 from a conservative Christian publishing house. In the book, Clarke calls for detaining American citizens suspected of terrorism indefinitely as “enemy combatants” and questioning them without a lawyer, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which examined a prepublication copy.
Obscured by his high profile is the fact that Clarke’s actual law enforcement authority in Milwaukee County is limited to patrolling state highways, maintaining the county jail, and policing county parks. He does all of those with a pugnacious, go-it-alone style that has made him the odd man out in local law enforcement circles.
On the afternoon of August 13, a Saturday, a Milwaukee police officer shot and killed a twenty-three-year-old black man in a confrontation in the city’s Sherman Park neighborhood. Hours later, the first of eight stores went up in flames, launching two nights of what some called an uprising, others a riot.
Through it all, most of Milwaukee’s power structure maintained a measured response. Whereas police in Baton Rouge and elsewhere pushed back heavily against protest, Milwaukee cops kept their cool and limited arrests. The city’s mayor imposed a citywide curfew for one week, but also met with community leaders. Follow-up news coverage focused on long-festering economic and social problems, including the flight of industrial jobs; the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel ran a story under the headline “Sherman Park unrest decades in the making.” Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn told the Los Angeles Times that troubled neighborhoods like Sherman Park “are also the ones that have been the most historically ignored.”
Clarke would have none of that sort of nuance. The day after the violence began, the sheriff seized the media spotlight—urging Republican Governor Scott Walker in a phone call to order up National Guard troops, and later that evening telling reporters, “I’m not going to get caught like Ferguson and Baltimore . . . . Stop trying to fix the police, fix the ghetto.”
Clarke owes his political start to Wisconsin’s one-term Republican Governor Scott McCallum, who appointed him sheriff in March 2002, after his predecessor took early retirement. That autumn, he won the seat outright, running, as he has ever since, as a Democrat.
Yet even then, Clarke was emerging as someone whose mind was far from that of others on his ticket. He blasted the city’s African American politicians in an email to conservative talk radio host Charlie Sykes. That was the beginning of a long, mutual courtship between Clarke and Milwaukee’s rightwing talk radio stations.
Clarke was never a liberal, but early in his tenure he sounded like a certain kind of centrist-conservative black mainstream politician with his emphasis on personal responsibility over racism. When the Wisconsin legislature passed a bill in 2003 that would have lifted Wisconsin’s ban on carrying concealed firearms, Clarke joined others in law enforcement urging Democratic Governor Jim Doyle to veto the measure, which the governor did. Clarke still opposed concealed-carry when he ran for reelection in 2006 against a Republican who favored lifting the ban.
A year later, though, Clarke reversed himself, and since then he’s been a Republican in everything but name. He has for years routinely sided not merely with the Republicans, but with their most conservative wing. And since the 2008 election of America’s first black president, Clarke’s voice has gotten louder, his rhetoric more incendiary.
Clarke’s rise coincided with the rightward push of the Wisconsin Republican Party that helped elect Scott Walker. Both were enabled in part by the same forces: Milwaukee’s conservative talk radio and a deep racial divide between the city frequently labeled America’s most segregated—where gaps between black people and white people in unemployment, poverty, and incarceration are among the nation’s worst—and its almost exclusively white suburbs.
Clarke’s national media breakthrough began with his 2013 radio ad urging local citizens to arm themselves instead of relying on police to protect them:
“Simply calling 911 and waiting is no longer your best option. You can beg for mercy from a violent criminal, hide under the bed, or you can fight back.” The ads, paid for with tax dollars, urged listeners to “consider taking a certified safety course in handling a firearm so you can defend yourself until we get there.”
The ad grabbed attention across rightwing, pro-gun websites, and Clarke’s audience has been building ever since. His social media presence rivals Trump’s. His Twitter feed isn’t confined to rightwing law-and-order themes; when conservative Christians talked of defying the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling legalizing same-sex marriage, he tweeted, “Encouraged to see that the sense of resignation over SCOTUS and modern lib cultural rot is turning to anger today. Next is rage, then revolt.”
But it’s with special enthusiasm that he assumed the role of attack dog against what he labels “Black LIES Matter.” His fervor has been unencumbered by consistency. Back in 2015, Clarke on Twitter assailed young civil rights activists as ready to “join forces with ISIS”—even as he was calling for “pitchforks and torches” in the wake of the gay marriage ruling. Just this past October, three and a half weeks before the presidential election, he revived that earlier phrase with another tweeted call to insurrection: “It’s incredible that our institutions of gov, WH, Congress, DOJ, and big media are corrupt & all we do is bitch. Pitchfork and torches time.”
But only the right has grounds to be angry, in Clarke’s view. The day after the election, he sent a tweet chiding anti-Trump protesters gathering in downtown Milwaukee: “These temper tantrums from these radical anarchists must be quelled. There is no legitimate reason to protest the will of the people.”
Clarke’s rhetoric echoes and even outstrips the GOP’s racially coded appeals to white people. He absolves police of responsibility in the fatal shootings of unarmed black people by talking about “black-on-black crime.” He has dismissed racism claims as “B.S.” and blamed crumbling inner cities exclusively on black drug dealers:
“They’re uneducated, they’re lazy, and they’re morally bankrupt.”
Clarke seems to display “an unbridled hatred of black people,” Milwaukee talk radio host Eric Von told The Progressive in an August interview, about a month before his unexpected death. Clarke wasn’t merely peddling self-criticism of the black community, which Von pointed out is not unusual. Instead of commonplace African American “constructive criticism,” Clarke was “just vicious.”
In October, Clarke told Sean Hannity on Fox News, “The only racism that I see on display is that from the Democrat party that keeps black families shackled to the new
plantation . . . . I’ve told black people over and over and over again to free themselves from the Democrat Party, quit the Democrat Party, shop your vote around.”
Hannity did not ask Clarke why he continues to assume the label of a party he says has been “hoodwinking the voters for fifty years.” Yet the results at the ballot box offer a clue. With four elections to date, Clarke has held his office with little difficulty by yoking together voters in overwhelmingly Republican white suburbs with those in equally overwhelmingly Democratic black central city neighborhoods.
Clarke’s message had a certain appeal for black middle-class voters.
“The black community is a very law-and-order place,” says Curtiss Harris, an African American business consultant and radio host. “So a lot of us think that the crime situation in the black community is based on a combination of economics and social dysfunction.”
Clarke counts on a certain amount of support just because he’s black. Before she died in November 2014, Annette “Polly” Williams—a popular African American state lawmaker for three decades who retired in 2010 and then became a talk radio host—endorsed Clarke in that year’s Democratic primary against a white opponent backed by virtually every other local Democrat, black or white.
For years, Clarke has publicly disparaged Milwaukee Police Chief Flynn, who despite tensions over deaths in police custody and other conflicts has gotten national recognition as one of the nation’s more sophisticated law enforcement officials. The sheriff has also put out press releases assailing the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s office and the county’s chief judge.
District Attorney John Chisholm says Clarke is a no-show at bimonthly meetings of the Milwaukee Community Justice Council—a group of prosecutors, lawyers, judges, city police department representatives, and assorted social service agency leaders that take a big-picture look at the criminal justice system. (Occasionally, the sheriff’s office does send a representative.)
“We have nineteen law enforcement agencies in the county, and I don’t know one that can work with him,” says Stan Stojkovic, a criminology professor and the dean of the Helen Bader School of Social Welfare at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Or, as Stojkovic once told Politico magazine, “Nobody talks more about law enforcement in the county, but does less.”
Soon after taking office, Clarke established a special gun crimes unit that worked with city and federal agents—then scrapped it just a few years later in about 2007, says Chisholm. The prosecutor remains baffled at the sheriff’s about-face: “I’ve never understood why that would happen. They were really doing good work.”
Another of the sheriff’s responsibilities has come under much darker scrutiny, though. In 2014, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that ten people died in the county jail, part of Clarke’s jurisdiction, over the previous four years, a mix of suicides and deaths from illness. In April, a mentally ill inmate died of dehydration after repeatedly being heard asking for water over several days. Clarke has not commented on the death, which remains under investigation; a private contractor providing medical services at the jail is also under scrutiny.
Meanwhile, Clarke’s widely bruited crime-fighting solutions are being rejected even among law enforcement professionals.
“His idea is the status quo—more cops, more judges, more jails,” says Stojkovic. “He’d lock up everyone.”
“What he’s espousing is traditional suppression techniques,” Chisholm says. Across the country, even as crime rates have significantly dropped, there are continuing conversations across ideological lines about crime prevention, alternatives to mass incarceration, and social problems that foster crime. “There’s a confluence of social justice progressives and fiscal conservatives saying, you’ve got to do this differently,” Chisholm says. “We can’t simply rely on reactive policing to address all these problems.”
Clarke, through his county press aide, declined to be interviewed for this article.
Early on, Clarke aligned himself with Trump’s presidential campaign, whose rhetoric of dominance and contempt meshed comfortably with his own. In August, on the Fox News show Fox & Friends, he called President Obama “a race hustler” and said, “Black Lives Matter? They don’t care about black lives. They don’t care about anybody’s life. They only care about political power.”
As the election approached, Harris and other Clarke critics in Milwaukee suggested his embrace of Trump was a bid for greater political power of his own—a berth inside a prospective Trump administration. As the Republican victory has turned those prospects from “what if” to “what now,” Clarke’s only comment was a statement issued by his office, as incontrovertibly accurate as it was unenlightening: “I am the sheriff of Milwaukee County. I will continue to be the sheriff of Milwaukee County until I am no longer the sheriff of Milwaukee County, at which time I won’t be the sheriff of Milwaukee County.”
The perk of a D.C. job has attractions of its own, but Clarke might have other reasons to be looking for the exit—namely, hints in Milwaukee that his bizarre bipartisan base is ripe for fracturing. Up until now, running as a Democrat in solidly blue Milwaukee County has been his ironic saving grace. But this time around, suggests radio host Harris, the sheriff may pay a price among black voters for his Trump endorsement. Political insiders acknowledge several potential challengers have already been privately approached, some of them African American.
Clarke’s high profile offers alternatives to sticking around for another term, and not just in the Trump Administration. In mid-September, a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel exposé disclosed that Clarke has collected gifts worth about $150,000, speaking honoraria, and other perks in 2015. “The theory has always been that Clarke is going to monetize” his rightwing media stardom, says Sachin Chheda, a political consultant and former Milwaukee County Democratic Party chairman. “This is the first evidence that he’s doing so.”
What a bitter irony for Clarke to make a soft landing in the Fox News universe or on the Trump team, after more than a decade of lawman demagoguery has left him too unpopular to keep his job at home.
Erik Gunn is a Wisconsin-based freelance writer.