When I introduced myself to David Clarke, the sheriff of Wisconsin's Milwaukee County, it was immediately clear that he had about 6 inches of height on me, even without his signature cowboy hat. We were both attending last summer's Republican National Convention, and on that day the Democrat-in-name-only had delivered a corrosive speech backing Donald Trump. As I requested an interview that I would never receive, the man who suggested Black Lives Matter will join with ISIS shook my hand with the firmness of a concerned father before his daughter's first date. I didn't feel bullied, but I certainly saw why people could consider him intimidating, either for his hyperbolic, offensive rhetoric or his tough-guy demeanor.
As we were reminded this week, though, Sheriff Clarke is scary for a different reason altogether. Within a period of six months in 2016, four people perished inside the Milwaukee County Jail. One was the infant child of inmate Shadé Swayzer, who claims her daughter was born alive behind bars and neglected by jail staff. The three other deaths were all Milwaukee County prisoners, two white inmates and a black one: Terrill Thomas, a 38-year-old man with bipolar disorder who died of dehydration last April.
I should rephrase that. "Died of dehydration" implies an accident, or some unfortunate consequence of benign neglect. But the media reports that say Thomas "was found dead on his jail cell floor" only tell part of the truth. Last week, as prosecutors began an inquest — a legal process by which a jury can question witnesses without charges being filed — we learned that Thomas had been locked in solitary confinement in the days leading to his death. People under Clarke's command refused to give him water for that entire week. They also didn't assist him or provide water when it became clear that he needed both (and his mental disorder prevented him from communicating those needs). This was ruled a homicide last September, but these new details suggest something much more malicious.
Ever since Thomas was murdered — what else should I call it? — in Clarke's jail more than 12 months ago, Clarke has been uncharacteristically quiet. In the single public remark he made on the matter in March, the sheriff recounted the alleged crime that led to Thomas’s arrest, although he didn't seem to know his name. And Clarke hasn't said anything since the inquest began. In response to a Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel request for comment, he wrote in an email, "Are you that stupid? Why would I say anything during the inquest?" While his officers scrambled to blame each other for what happened to Thomas during the inquest, Clarke hasn’t fired or significantly disciplined any of them, either.
Clarke’s silence may just be his way of trying to run out the clock. As the president's most visible endorser from the law enforcement community, Clarke — once rumored to be a candidate to lead the Department of Homeland Security — is reportedly under consideration for a federal job as a liaison between DHS and tribal, local, and state authorities, as well as law enforcement branches throughout the nation. It appears that letting people die of thirst in your jail is considered a résumé-builder by this administration. But as relieved as the citizens of Milwaukee may be to rid themselves of Clarke — his poll numbers are abysmal — the prospect of his ideas about law and order becoming further institutionalized throughout the nation is chilling.
Clarke and Trump are kindred spirits, in some respects. They have both failed up, for one. Since Clarke was first appointed to his position 15 years ago — as a Democrat, no less — the sheriff has crafted a public persona as a right-wing hero by berating, threatening, and mocking anyone whom he considers a political opponent, both in person and on frequent cable news appearances. As effective as Clarke has been at replacing Clarence Thomas as the preeminent lawn jockey for the far right, he has been fairly awful at doing his actual job: ensuring community safety and reducing crime.
Despite Trump's tendency to inflate the threat of urban crime, he rarely mentions Milwaukee, one of the most violent cities in the nation. Yet those in conservative spheres haven't raked Clarke over the coals for his failure — because his star keeps rising. And in a political environment in which talking tough about "law and order" is more important than actually enforcing it, and in the context of an administration that is doing the most to exploit the advantages that systemic racism affords to them, Clarke is a natural fit.
Throughout his career, Clarke has consistently stood in the way of improving law enforcement: He has criticized consent decrees and agreements between federal authorities and courts to improve local police departments, and has denied even the suggestion that systemic bias still exists in those departments. He calls mass incarceration a " myth," points to "black-on-black" crime as the true danger, and once said that "there is no police brutality in America ... We ended that back in the ’60s."
The sheriff resembles a Yosemite Sam of black conservatism, firing off juvenile zingers — " Black LIES Matter," get it? — that frequently serve to undermine his fellow African-Americans. Few people in the public sphere appear to despise black folks as much as Clarke does. He calls to mind the caricature of the self-hating black cop from Boyz n the Hood, converted into a modern-day pundit. As Representative Gwen Moore, a Democrat from Wisconsin, put it in a 2015 op-ed, being a black man lets the sheriff "give voice to the dog-whistle narratives [Fox News] anchors dare not vocalize themselves."
It was easier to ignore Clarke when he was just a mascot of the right, a black man with a badge who existed primarily to assuage those Fox News viewers who, outside of their own "safe spaces," were uncomfortable expressing what they really felt about race. Here was a black man saying racist things, someone with license to do so.
But given the Thomas case and the three others, the stakes are higher now. Despite the Wisconsin corrections department’s recent glowing review of Clarke's jail, all is clearly not well there. Thomas's family has sued, as have others. The inquest jury found probable cause of a crime in Thomas's death, and recommended that the district attorney pursue felony charges for seven jail officials. Clarke wasn't on that list of suspects, but if the sheriff was not knowingly complicit in the apparent murder of Thomas, he was clearly not all that bothered by it. In Trump's America, why would he be? He won't be fired. In fact, it looks like David Clarke's way of doing things is about to earn him a promotion.