Politics & Policy

David Clarke: The Sheriff as Rebel

(Illustration: Thomas Reis)
How the Milwaukee County sheriff became a political celebrity

In January 2013, a 32-second radio advertisement was broadcast in Milwaukee, and — quite by accident — a political star was born. Hoping to encourage local residents to play a part in their own protection, the commercial’s progenitor went firmly on the record in favor of the private ownership of firearms: “With officers laid off and furloughed, simply calling 911 and waiting is no longer your best option.” Rather, listeners were invited to “consider taking a certified safety course in handling a firearm.” “You have a duty to protect yourself and your family,” the commercial intoned. “Can I count on you?”

The speaker was Milwaukee County sheriff David A. Clarke Jr., and the reaction was immediate. Within days of the ad’s release, Roy Felber, president of the Milwaukee Deputy Sheriffs’ Association, complained bitterly that the idea didn’t “sound too smart.” “People have the right to defend themselves,” he griped, “but they don’t have the right to take the law into their own hands.” Tom Barrett, the mayor of Milwaukee, seconded Felber’s critique. “Sheriff David Clarke,” Barrett lamented, “is auditioning for the next Dirty Harry movie.” Predictably, these sentiments were echoed by gun-control groups across the country. A year later, when Clarke ran for reelection, Michael Bloomberg’s PAC contributed $150,000 to his opponent’s campaign.

Initially, Clarke was shocked at the contretemps. “I didn’t see this as a national question when I spoke out,” he tells me, as we sit down in his Milwaukee office. “The ad was meant in response to some local crime issues. I couldn’t have dreamed of being catapulted into the national spotlight.” Indeed, at first he resisted the pull. “When it started to grow, I tried to corral it and push it away,” he recalls. “This is my hometown. I’m just trying to make a difference here.”

On the questions of gun control, race, the nature of policing, the record of his city’s government, and even his own Democratic party, Clarke is dramatically out of step with his colleagues and with what is typically expected from African-American males.

Before long, however, the requests for interviews and appearances became so numerous that they were all but impossible to refuse. At first, it was mostly radio. Then a few curious television stations began to inquire. And, finally, the National Rifle Association got in touch. “Someone in my position is unique,” Clarke tells me. “I’m in law enforcement, I’m black, and I was speaking from a rare position.” Now he is in demand. “I’ll go where anybody wants to hear me. I don’t tailor my message to one specific group.”

RELATED: Sheriff Clarke Rips Holder’s Anti-Cop Attitude at Senate Hearing

At local conservative events, at the Conservative Political Action Conference, and at pro–Second Amendment meetings, the man is welcomed like a rock star. His face is a regular feature on the front covers of firearms-enthusiast and law-enforcement magazines. He is a fixture on Fox News and talk radio. On the face of it, Clarke was just joking when he told the 70,000 attendees of this year’s NRA convention that he “isn’t running for anything . . . yet.” But all gags contain a modicum of truth, and, with his pregnant pause, Clarke was acknowledging just how popular he had become. “I’m a cop at heart — it’s in my blood,” he insists when I ask about his future. But he won’t rule anything out.

Sheriff Clarke rides in a St. Patrick's Day Parade in 2013

It’s not just the cowboy hat and the leather waistcoat that set him apart. On the questions of gun control, race, the nature of policing, the record of his city’s government, and even his own Democratic party (more on which later), Clarke is dramatically out of step with his colleagues and with what is typically expected from African-American males.

Was he always? Well, that’s complicated. Back in 2003, when the governor was considering a bill that would have loosened restrictions on the private carrying of firearms, Clarke penned a worried letter urging him to veto it. “There are better ways to fight crime than to flood the streets of Milwaukee with dangerous weapons,” Clarke proposed. In an urban area such as Milwaukee, he added, an increase in the civilian use of firearms would jeopardize the “safety of my deputies and the citizens they represent.”

By 2007, Clarke had done a 180. “The police are no longer able to guarantee the personal safety of citizens,” he told local talk-radio host Charlie Sykes. In consequence, the state government should reconsider its “opposition to allowing law-abiding people the means with which to protect themselves.”

Clarke is happy to explain this shift. “Once,” he tells me, “this was a thriving city. It was industry-based, had a lot of manufacturing, was very safe.” And now? “People are at the mercy of the criminal element here. I’m in these neighborhoods and I talk to these folks. They’re living in terrorized neighborhoods. That bothers me. I grew up here.”

“There was a time in this country,” Clarke adds, “when a lot of personal protection was done by the individual. As time went on and these urban centers developed, the government took on a bigger role. We were okay with that. But they weren’t doing it here. People were waiting an inordinate amount of time to get a squad to respond. So I said, let’s define a role for the citizenry.”

Sheriff Clarke at CPAC 2015

That role, Clarke insists, is consonant with the American ideal of self-government. “You have a duty to protect you and your family,” he says. “I don’t mean go chasing down bank robbers and all that stuff. But we can’t just ask for help when we’re trying to solve a crime. That’s after the crime has happened. How about before?”

Which is to say that Clarke’s transformation has been more than merely pragmatic. “As the NRA and other groups started to want to use me as a symbol of the Second Amendment — a black voice — I started reading up,” he recalls. “I became fascinated. What really struck me was the black tradition of arms. . . . I thought, Wow. This isn’t the black history I grew up reading about.” Among the many thinkers to whom Clarke attributes his present philosophy are Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, and — a particular favorite — Thomas Sowell. “Once blacks were able to arm themselves to protect against kidnapping and lynching,” he explains, “things really began to change in terms of black freedom.”

“Once blacks were able to arm themselves to protect against kidnapping and lynching, things really began to change in terms of black freedom.”

This unorthodox outlook has gone a long way toward informing Clarke’s difficult relationship with the Democratic party, under whose banner he has now been winning for almost a decade and a half. “I run as a Democrat because it’s a partisan election,” he muses. “And originally, I decided to run as a Democrat because that’s what the family history was. But I didn’t want to join the party.” His parents were “Jack Kennedy and Harry Truman Democrats” and fans of Martin Luther King Jr., but they didn’t talk about politics much. “As a child,” he recalls, “I was taught to value education, hard work, perseverance, and taking responsibility for your decisions in life. Now, it seems like those are conservative ideas. But they’re not.”

“Growing up a career cop,” Clarke explains, “I was always taught, ‘Stay out of politics.’ I didn’t have any particular allegiance to any particular party.” Still, understandable as his electoral affiliation may be in practice, there is no doubt that Clarke is an odd fit for the party of the American Left. “I believe in limited government,” he affirms. “I know what the welfare state has done to the black family.”

“I believe in military superiority,” he continues. “I get that from my dad. He did combat jumps in Korea under fire. I believe that the Constitution protects individuals and not groups. I believe in safe streets here at home. And I believe in states’ rights. For a label for me, ‘conservative’ is more appropriate than ‘Republican.’”

Whatever he is, Clarke certainly benefits from Republican support. Oddly enough for the United States, his present electoral coalition is a combination of poorer blacks and suburban white conservatives. “I clean up in the suburban areas,” he records. “I always lost a lot of those communities, but I won them handily this time.” And what of those black voters, who typically do not vote in great numbers for conservative candidates? “I win because I get those folks,” Clarke smiles. “I get ’em. I understand them. They feel connected.”

RELATED: Sheriff Clarke ‘Not Buying One Word’ of Eric Holder’s Ferguson Report

’Twas not ever thus. When he started out, Clarke recalls, he would explain that one can blame “the white man” and “slavery” only so much before recognizing that “some of this is self-inflicted.” That didn’t work. So he took a different tack: “I started to connect with them emotionally rather than logically. I started talking about things that affected them. And it started to change. With me they think, ‘We’re not real crazy about some of the things he says, but he’s ours.’”

Some of the things that Clarke says are, indeed, highly controversial — even among conservatives such as myself. Black Americans, he proposes, “have been separated from their history,” and are therefore “easily exploited” by politicians. As a result, he argues, the Democratic party has managed to cultivate a large bloc of voters who are “susceptible to bullsh**.”

“If we were reconnected with our history,” he predicts, “you’d see some erosion away from this abject servility to the Democratic party.” “My dad was an Airborne Ranger,” Clarke reiterates, pushing back against my suggestion that “servility” is a strong term. “When he fought in Korea, the Army was [partly] segregated. He witnessed injustice. Young blacks have no idea what they’re talking about.”

Sheriff Clarke speaks at the 2014 NRA conference.

This is not to say that Clarke believes all is well. It’s “problematic,” he contends, that in many parts of America the population is mostly black and the police force and local governments are mostly white: “I don’t want quotas, but that’s a problem” nevertheless. And yet if blacks want to change that, he suggests, they don’t need to riot, “they need to vote.”

At the height of the tensions in Ferguson, Mo., Clarke took to Fox News and told Al Sharpton to “shut up.” Sharpton, Clarke submitted, was a “charlatan” who “ought to go back into the gutter.” Eric Holder, he added, had offered up a “poor display” and should “apologize” to law enforcement. Barack Obama, meanwhile, had fueled “racial animosity between people.” “When the president talks,” Clarke tells me, “everybody listens. When Eric Holder holds a press conference, everybody listens. They have to be more careful. Obama should have said to the rioters, ‘You need to find a more socially acceptable way of dealing with your anger.’”

RELATED: Pro-Gun Sheriff Over Michael Bloomberg’s Big-Money Efforts to Oust Him

In Clarke’s telling, “there was no institutional racism” in Ferguson, though there may have been some bad actors: “Eric Holder went on a witch hunt,” he proposes. “Holder went down loaded for bear when Ferguson first happened.” In consequence, the DOJ’s report was “poorly written and poorly put together” — the product of an attorney general who dislikes the police and wishes to cast them in a poor light. “The DOJ,” he charges, “manipulates the numbers.” “I’m not going to defend the Ferguson P.D.,” he adds. “But I will defend the profession.”

Obama should have said to the [Ferguson] rioters, ‘You need to find a more socially acceptable way of dealing with your anger.’”

On crime in general, Clarke tends to side with the law-and-order types. The contention that there are too many Americans in prison, Clarke tells me, is “a myth.” (Wisconsin has the highest incarceration rate for black males in the country.) “Drug reformers are misleading the public,” he adds. Certainly, he sees a role for decriminalization of the possession of certain drugs, but he is not open to wholesale legalization. “For my community,” he tells me, “drugs are a problem. Guy’s got a little weed on him — a few rocks on him for his own personal use — he doesn’t need to go to prison. The guy with the intent to deliver — yes, he needs to go to prison. I’m not there in terms of legalizing anything.”

Indeed, Clarke prefers to cast the drug war as a means by which African Americans are liberated from violence in their communities. (I strongly disagree.) “The only reason we went on that lock-’em-up drive in the first place,” he suggests, “was black mayors who went to Congress and pleaded for help. Because of the violence, they pleaded with Congress for tougher laws on crack cocaine. Black mayors did that. Yet we’re made to believe it was white congressmen who wanted to throw these black guys in jail.”

As one might expect, Clarke’s views on drugs are at odds with those of the city’s leadership. Indeed, his views on almost everything are. “Right now,” he explains, “my relationship with the city is acrimonious. We have a county executive who is very anti-police. He has a disdain for the police.” For Tom Barrett, the longtime mayor of the city, Clarke has only criticism. “Barrett’s been there for eleven years — almost as long as I have. Milwaukee has been a disaster under this guy. We have obscenely high black unemployment.”

Pushing the brim of his hat up slightly, Clarke picks up a piece of paper from his desk. “Let me read you something,” he says, with a pained expression. “This is from this year’s state-of-the-city address”:

Milwaukee in 2015 is a city where opportunity is growing, investments are increasing, and residents are tackling new endeavors. Milwaukee is strong, and this is a year to build on our strengths.

“Does it look like that to you?” Clarke asks me. I confess that I am an outsider and that I do not know. He motions toward his truck. “Let’s go take a look.”

Sheriff David Clarke

I strap on a bulletproof vest, and we head into the Central City — or, in less polite parlance, into “the ghetto.” At 3 o’clock in the afternoon, the streets are mostly deserted, save for a few shiftless people who look up from the sidewalk only to gauge the interest of the marked police car that is following our truck. In an hour and a half, I do not see a single white face.

Almost half of the homes in the Central City have been boarded up completely. Others have been stripped of their tiles, their doorknobs, and their sheet metal. Once-pristine backyards have become vast dumpsters, into which the locals have deposited trash, broken furniture, busted tires, ripped mattresses, and, in some cases, worn-out cars. It is impossible to travel more than three blocks in any direction without seeing a makeshift memorial to the murdered, wrapped inexpertly around a tree trunk.

Occasionally, we see a pristine house whose owners are holding out against the decay. How long they will last is anybody’s guess. In 1960, Milwaukee had 741,000 residents. Today, it has just 600,000.

“Milwaukee has the fourth-highest homicide rate per 100,000 people in the United States,” Clarke tells me. In fact, “20 kids under 16 were murdered here last year.” I presume that this means that they were caught in the crossfire. “No,” Clarke tells me. “They were the targets. These people are trapped.”

A couple of miles away, in the Northpoint neighborhood on the edge of Lake Michigan, children fly kites and laugh happily by the water. At the top of the hill, perfectly groomed Victorian houses stand proudly. An American flag flies in the distance. “There was a shooting down here,” Sheriff Clarke tells me. “People were coming in from nearby and causing problems. So we beefed up the police presence and fixed it.

“They called me a racist.”


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