Has Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke's Tough Talk Gone Too Far?

Jan 26, 2017

Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke has a reputation for saying what's on his mind, even if it's not politically correct. But critics say his rhetoric may have crossed a line.

Clarke's words have often made waves over the last few years. For instance, when his office ran a public service announcement, in which Clarke urged Milwaukee County residents to arm themselves, saying they can’t count on police to get there in time. Clarke says: "You can beg for mercy from a violent criminal, hide under the bed or you can fight back."

In a podcast, the sheriff said this about fellow African Americans: "Let me tell you why blacks sell drugs and involve themselves in criminal behavior instead of a more socially acceptable lifestyle: because they're uneducated, they're lazy and they're morally bankrupt."

And in the last couple of days, Clarke has lashed out at demonstrators in Washington, D.C. He was there for Donald Trump's inauguration. The sheriff appeared on Fox News to talk about people who followed and yelled at North Carolina's former governor, saying: "I tell you what, if those idiots would have come after me like they did the former governor of North Carolina, the cops would have had to move in to pull me off of them."

Critics say Clarke's tough talk -- and actions -- went too far this month, after an interaction with a fellow passenger on an airplane. The Milwaukee man says he noticed Clarke "decked out" in Dallas Cowboys gear, on a day the Packers played the Cowboys. The man says he shook his head as he walked past the sheriff. When the plane landed in Milwaukee, the man says sheriff's department deputies detained and questioned him for about 15 minutes.

Clarke then mocked the man on social media, posting his photo along with the comment: "If Sheriff Clarke were to really harass you, you wouldn't be around to whine about it."

Milwaukee state Rep. David Crowley says after 14 years, it's time for a new sheriff.

"These comments don’t sit well here in Milwaukee County. He is a law enforcement officer. His duty is to protect and serve, and when you go out and you make these type of inflamed comments or you harass an individual who lives in Milwaukee County, it makes you wonder, is he really going to protect and serve me," Crowley says.

Crowley says both colleagues and residents share his concerns about Clarke's rhetoric and the four deaths last year at the Milwaukee County jail.

Clarke has said little about the deaths. This week, Crowley wrote to Gov. Scott Walker, urging him to oust the sheriff. Walker says voters can decide Clarke's fate; the sheriff is up for reelection next year.

WUWM contacted Clarke for this report, but his spokeswoman said the sheriff is not doing interviews. However, he addressed the airplane incident -- again -- on Facebook on Wednesday. In the new post, Clarke complains that a county investigation into the matter is an attempt by his political opponents "to harass and bully" him.

The developments interest UW-Madison journalism professor Michael Wagner, who studies political communication. Wagner says on one hand, Clarke's provocative behavior may be helping his career, because "it plays very well to supporters and it's also very on-brand."

While Clarke runs as a Democrat, his supporters applaud his conservative views and his attitude. Clarke is a frequent guest on Fox News. There's been talk that he might join the Trump administration. And conservatives from outside Wisconsin are trying to recruit Clarke to run against Wisconsin Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin.

Yet Wagner says when it comes to those who disagree with Clarke, the sheriff has been leaving a virtual "paper trail," easing their efforts to build a case against him.

"Sheriff Clarke's behavior on social media is very unusual for public officials, especially public officials in law enforcement. A lot of the language he uses is very jarring, he's very direct, he's very opinionated, he's willing to insult people who disagree with him, and it's the kind of behavior you don't typically see from people serving in his position," Wagner says.

Ultimately, probes into the deaths at the jail, and the investigation into the incident with the airline passenger, could show whether Clarke has crossed a legal line in his role as sheriff.