On Monday, President-elect Donald Trump met with Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, who made regular appearances on the campaign trail and on Fox News as a surrogate for Trump, to discuss the possibility that he might serve as the next secretary of Homeland Security. Since April, four people—including a newborn baby—have died at the Milwaukee County Jail, which is run by Clarke’s office. (According to the Huffington Post, the facility houses 960 people and previously averaged about two deaths annually.) He has described protestors in Ferguson, Missouri, following the shooting-death of Michael Brown as converging “like vultures on a roadside carcass,” and people like Brown himself as “co-conspirators in their own demise.” And, in 2013, the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, an anti-government organization dedicated to training sheriffs and police to refuse to enforce federal laws they deem unconstitutional, named him “Sheriff of the Year.”
This “award” came in the wake of a radio advertisement that featured Sheriff Clarke encouraging citizens of Milwaukee County to arm themselves which was paid for by the department itself. (“Simply calling 911 and waiting is no longer your best option,” Clarke intones in the ad. “You can beg for mercy from a violent criminal, hide under the bed, or you can fight back.”) In a press release, Clarke said he was “both honored and humbled to receive” the “award.” Addressing the association at their annual convention in St. Charles, Missouri, the next month, the sheriff held up a pocket-sized copy of the Constitution, which he claimed to carry everywhere he went, and called the Founding Fathers “grassroots people.”
“You folks are the modern Founders,” Clarke said, “because you want to return back to the promise that this document made to the people of the United States of America.” Other attendees included Stewart Rhodes, the former Ron Paul Congressional staffer and founder of the Oath Keepers militia, and Mike Zullo, Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s chief “birther” investigator. Clarke continued: “Read your Declaration of Independence. What’s happening today is what happened then.” (Conveniently, his pocket Constitution included a copy of that document as well.) “The ruling class in Washington, D.C., sees us as subjects. We’re not citizens in their eyes.”
Clarke advised the audience to stop thinking in terms of liberal and conservative, Republican and Democrat. (As it happens, Clarke is a registered Democrat.) The movement that the CSPOA aims to foment needs a “common enemy” and a “common language,” he said, and the common enemy is not Nancy Pelosi or Barack Obama, but government itself. “People come and go,” Clarke said. “The government remains.”
Founded in 2011 by former Arizona sheriff Richard Mack (who has also worked as a lobbyist for the Gun Owners of America), the CSPOA promotes the idea that the county level of government ought to be treated as the entity with the greatest governing power. This is an idea that was first given coherence by an earlier right-wing group, the Posse Comitatus, an explicitly racist and anti-Semitic militia organization that held some influence in the Midwest during the 1970s and ‘80s. The group’s central text, the so-called Posse Blue Book, claimed that the county was “the highest authority of government in our Republic. (Posse comitatus is Latin for ‘the power of the county.’) “The county sheriff is the one who can say to the feds, ‘Beyond these bounds you shall not pass,’” Mack has written, claiming the allegiance of hundreds of sheriffs and other law enforcement officers who have “expressed a desire to be part of this Holy Cause of Liberty.”
In an appearance before House Democrats in June, J. Richard Cohen, an attorney and president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, offered testimony on the consequences of CSPOA’s “radicalism,” which he said could lead to violent confrontations between federal and local law enforcement agencies but also undermines cooperation and trust between those agencies. By way of example, he pointed to the criminal investigation opened by the state of Oregon into Sheriff Glenn Palmer of Grant County, who in 2012 was the CSPOA’s first “Sheriff of the Year” and in January did not assist law enforcement efforts during the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, instead openly sympathizing with the militants. Mack, Cohen testified, claims the support of more than 400 sheriffs nationwide.
“The greatest threat we face today is not terrorists,” Mack has written. “It is our own federal government.” The CSPOA, he believes, “will be the army to set our nation free.”
It is a somewhat ironic twist, then, that Clarke—who was appointed in 2002 and has won re-election three times since then, in no small part thanks to white suburban voters—should be in a position to impose his nightmareish ideas about law enforcement on the nation. Despite his and CSPOA’s concerns about the encroachment of federal power, Clarke’s vision does not seem to include a reduction of the carceral state but an expansion of it: Wisconsin has the highest percentage of incarcerated black men of any state in the country, and Milwaukee County accounts for 70 percent of Wisconsin’s total black population; according to CityLab, more than half of all black men in their thirties and early forties in the county have been incarcerated at some point.
Clarke said that he would suspend habeus corpus and send American citizens suspected of being “enemy combatants” to Guantanamo Bay as head of Homeland Security—around one million people, he estimated—during a December 2015 episode of his show, The People’s Sheriff, on Glenn Beck’s radio network. He also promised to form a new, “wholly independent structure entity, which reports directly to the White House,” dedicated to tracking suspected terrorists inside the United States. “This organization does not exist here as of yet, but it needs to, and quick,” Clarke writes in his memoir, Cop Under Fire, an advanced readers’ copy of which the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel recently obtained. “A new entity focused on protection, not prosecution, is the only way to protect Americans.”
Speaking to Jezebel by phone on Wednesday, the founder of CSPOA, Sheriff Mack, reserved comment on those particular proposals, as he has not discussed them yet with Clarke, although he emphasized, “We do not believe in expanding the powers of federal government.” Nevertheless, Mack said Clarke would be “my first choice” to head the Department of Homeland Security. “I’ve got more impressed with him all the time. I’m proud of my friendship with him.”
(Mack also offered himself as a candidate to serve in the Trump administration. “I would be very qualified,” he told Jezebel, to supervise Border Patrol, or the Bureau of Land Management, or the IRS. “I would be an excellent swamp drainer.”)
It is not just federal authority that Clarke chafes under, however: He’s butted heads with Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm, as well. In May 2014, just as he was launching his re-election campaign, Clarke sent Chisholm a letter—which he publicized with a press conference—containing a somewhat ludicrous proposal for reforming what he deemed the DA’s “social engineering criminal justice experiments.” The district attorney, Clarke suggested, should suspend the use of deferred prosecutions, pled-down sentences in exchange for guilty pleas, read-in charges, and imposed-and-stayed custodial sentences for certain crimes.
“When you go soft on crime, criminals are no longer afraid to reoffend,” Clarke reasoned. “Incarceration does one thing extremely well: It reduces crime and its corresponding economic and psychological costs and damage to neighborhoods, because when criminals are locked up they are not out committing more crimes.”
The district attorney’s response detailed just how catastrophic such Clarke’s proposal would be if enacted. “Plea negotiations often allow us to assure the lengthy incapacitation of violent offenders, and the loss of that practice would instead result in these individuals’ being freed in the community because backed-up court dockets violate defendants’ speedy trial rights,” Chisholm wrote. “Police budgets on homicide cases alone would be decimated, as we would have to pull detectives and officers off the streets to sit in court for week-long trials, even when the defendant is willing to plead to the charge.”
Clarke’s reply was not nearly so measured. “It is apparent by the tone of your response to my request, that you are feeling a bit angry,” he sneered, going on to compare Chisholm’s use of plea bargains and probation to the Tuskegee syphilis study, one of the most notorious racist incidents in United States medical history, and also criticizes Chisholm for investigating Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s ties to dark-money groups.
Neither the district attorney nor Sheriff Clark responded to requests for comment.