Milwaukee County Sheriff David A. Clarke Jr. talks with Opportunist’s Managing Editor Leslie Stone about why he will continue to speak out in support of his peers in law enforcement and why he believes dissent is healthy for democracy.
In the nearly nine months following the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., last August, Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke has remained outspoken in his support of not only former Officer Darren Wilson, who shot the unarmed Brown, but police officers across the country. “I felt the police needed a voice in this one-sided false narrative and weren’t given one,” he says. “Cops are professionals. I call myself a cop. If you cut me open, I don’t bleed red—I bleed blue. I’ve been doing this for 37 years and I love what I do, but it’s a tough job. Sometimes we don’t have all the resources but, gosh darn it, we have been given an opportunity to serve in this capacity and we have signed up for it.”
He has appeared on local talk radio, CNN, Fox and other media outlets in an effort to stand up for his peers in law enforcement. “People are coming out of the woodwork saying the police systematically use too much force against black males,” he says. “Look, I’ve read the research and there is nothing in the data I’ve read that shows the police use an inordinate amount of force against young black males. People converged on Ferguson to try to use that as some sort of flashpoint and exploited the situation for their own self-serving means. It was like the Occupy movement. Ferguson already had its problems. Al Sharpton and his protestors didn’t need to go there. I am not going to let people who have an agenda stand up and use these situations to say these are symbols of an American police officer. Every day police officers go out and put their best foot forward. Sure, every once in a while there will be a cop who steps outside the code of conduct. No doubt. It happens every day in other industries too. If a teacher is inappropriate with a student, we don’t say we have a problem with the entire teaching profession. We look at the individual and say ‘this person—not the profession—needs to be held accountable.’ When a doctor botches a surgery, and it happens more than we know, we don’t indict the entire medical profession. We look at that particular situation and deal with it on an individual basis. I still believe the overwhelming majority of people appreciate and understand the value of police as the firewall between order and chaos. Imagine cities, towns and villages without cops. It would be utter chaos.”
A lifelong resident of Milwaukee, Clarke is currently serving his fourth term as sheriff. “The fact that you don’t get forever to accomplish what you want to do [in office] creates a sense of urgency,” he says. “I consider what I’m doing right now a work in progress and I’m hoping better and greater things are yet to come. The way I approach life is to always be in search of excellence, and there is no finish line to excellence.”
Opportunist: Why does there seem to be widespread hostility toward law enforcement around the country?
Sheriff Clarke: First of all, this has grown. We haven’t seen this since the turbulent ‘60s.
Police are the target of cop-hating anarchists. They become the first thing that appears in their crosshairs when they try to weaken the institution of government. Police officers need political support and more responsible statements from the president of the United States. You cannot send mixed messages. Shame on those people. I saw the attorney general and the president—two of the most important officers in the land—engaging in that nonsense instead of being a voice of reason. The president ascended through a divide and conquer strategy—men against women, rich against poor—and he has been successful, politically, by dividing people by class. He has done it with blacks versus whites. He says racism is still institutional in the United States, but that is a lie. It is episodic and when it rears its ugly head we get hold of it, expose it and eradicate it. The days of Jim Crow law, when blacks had to sit at the back of the bus, stand or to give up their seat to whites, was institutional. I was incensed when I heard that. I thought you occupy the highest office in the land, how can you even talk like that? You wouldn’t be president today if racism were institutional.
Opportunist: Will we ever know the whole truth about what happened in Ferguson?
Sheriff Clarke: We already know. The grand jury got it right. They wrote the report and released the evidence. Michael Brown came out of a convenience store where he had just strong-armed a clerk half his size. Think, for a minute, if the reverse happened. Can you imagine the outrage? That showed a lot about his character. So he comes out and confronts Officer Darren Wilson, who tells him ‘get out of the street’ and ‘get up on the sidewalk.’ Nobody tells Michael Brown what to do—especially not some white guy—and he attacks the police officer. People who saw this—black people—testified that they were initially afraid to say anything because they didn’t want people coming down on them. We know what happened. Michael Brown fought with a police officer and tried to disarm him. He was a co-conspirator in his own demise. Officer Wilson didn’t go after him. He was outside his squad car, between the door and the seat. He didn’t go and get in his face or charge him. Michael Brown came over to him. Evidence shows that. Some might not want to accept that but we know. Did he deserve to die? No, but he caused his own death.
I’m not unsympathetic. I know it’s hard for his family. But things weren’t going to turn out well for Michael Brown. If it weren’t a police officer, another person would’ve shot him one day. He tried to walk out with cigarettes or whatever, and when the convenience store clerk tried to stop him he started shoving him around. He did the same with Officer Wilson. He resented authority. You might be able to push a convenience store clerk or a guy on the street, but someday you’re going to be up against a force that will push back. Officer Wilson was fulfilling his duty to create order. As the great writer Thomas Sowell said, ‘When an officer gives a lawful command and the person doesn’t comply, if you cannot back it up with force to make him obey you cannot have law.’ Officer Wilson told him to get out of the street. It’s a simple thing. ‘Get out of the street.’ Sometimes cops can be rude or overbearing. They’re not perfect. If so, get his badge number and file a complaint. You don’t charge an officer, get up in his face and tell him ‘You don’t tell me what to do.’
Opportunist: You called Attorney General Eric Holder’s Ferguson Report a ‘witch hunt.’ What made you draw that conclusion?
Sheriff Clarke: That’s exactly what it was. Michael Brown was trying to disarm Officer Darren Wilson, who felt he had no other recourse and at some point in that interaction Brown lost his life. Eric Holder invoked the name of Emmett Till into Ferguson and I just wasn’t going to stand for it. [Politicians] don’t put their lives on the line. There’s a police memorial wall [National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial] in Washington, D.C, with the names of 20,000 law enforcement officers who died performing this duty, and now the whole profession is being trashed.
The President of the United States said the same thing: ‘police officers are poorly trained.’ And yet no other country in the world spends the amount of money we spend training our police departments here in the United States. Are we perfect? Not by any stretch of the imagination. But we are not poorly trained. It has also been said that police departments have problems with people who don’t look like them. I was repulsed by that statement. We have these powerful voices stealing this and creating a pathway for it to surge. I put men and women in harm’s way every day—and I’ve buried police officers. I’ve had to take on some pretty powerful people, and I owe them that in return for their service.
Opportunist: Is it ever difficult to take a stance that may be in opposition to popular opinion?
Sheriff Clarke: No. I said from the beginning that what I am going to say will be unvarnished. I don’t sugarcoat things. I will point out inconsistencies and take the time to explain my position and what I meant. I’m not right about everything. If you disagree, let’s continue the discussion and you can challenge me. Maybe you can change my opinion. Unfortunately, it usually turns into personal attacks. That’s not healthy discussion. I believe dissent is healthy for democracy. I won’t attack you personally for it, but I will ask for more substantiation and to see the data.
All across the United States I encounter people who appreciate that I skip the spin and the B.S. and give them straight talk. Too many are poll-testing and focus-grouping these things to try to please everybody. I believe in a clash of ideas because through this clash of ideas we all learn something. I can learn too, but I cannot respond if you’re calling me Uncle Tom or other names. Nobody learns from that. There is so much political discord with everybody at each other’s throats. I choose not to be that way and, apparently, people appreciate me for it—at least that’s what they tell me.
Opportunist: How did you feel about the resignation in March of Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson?
Sheriff Clarke: That was inevitable after the riots broke. I thought early on he’s not going to survive this. It’s a political casualty. He heard some of the things I was saying on TV and emailed to thank me for supporting the Ferguson Police Department.
Ferguson has changed demographically over the last 30 years, but the political structure did not reflect that. In the ‘80s, the city was 80 percent white. It’s not like we are talking about the ‘50s—this was not that long ago. Fast-forward to 2010 and the census revealed the city was nearly 70 percent black. It’s hard in a police department, with collective bargaining rules and seniority. You can’t just say ‘We have 57 officers and 25 percent of the force will be black in the next five years.’ What if you don’t get 25 percent retirements? You have to wait until people retire and do a better job of recruiting. If you’re a mayor or on the city board and don’t pay attention to the political winds or have your finger on the pulse of what’s going on at ground level, then shame on you. Two black people were recently elected to the city board. Obviously, the black population voted. If you’re not going to participate in the electoral process by having candidates or voting, some of the blame is on you too.
Sheriff Clarke: Is it the worst thing in the world? No. But it was the height of insensitivity and laziness. I’d like to think he has better political skills than that. We all understand social media, but there is a time and place to tweet. There’s etiquette to it. It’s OK to tweet ‘happy birthday’ to so-and-so, but for something as serious as that you do not send out a tweet. If I heard your mom passed I wouldn’t send out a tweet; I would call you. Symbolism matters to the police. When two of St. Louis’ finest are shot in the line of duty, don’t issue a tweet. Put on a suit and tie, go to the East Room and issue a statement. He certainly took to the East Room when talking about Trayvon Martin or Michael Brown. Am I the only one who sees these parallels?
Opportunist: What else do you hope to accomplish in your fourth term?
Sheriff Clarke: The big task right now is to push back on this surge that’s happening across the United States where politicians are falling prey to the idea of criminal justice reform. They are drinking the Kool-Aid and thinking we can save money by not putting people in prison, but they don’t live in these areas they are releasing career criminals back into. They think of cutting costs and saving state budgets and they claim incarceration is victimizing black people. They don’t do like I do and say, ‘Give me an opposing viewpoint.’ Well, I have one over here, and I will save you the work Mr. Politician.
Opportunist: Are you referring to your stand against the ‘soft on crime movement?’
Sheriff Clarke: Alternatives to incarceration are a disaster. They’re social engineering experiments of the academic elite who sit in their ivory towers at colleges and universities and use the urban center as their lab and the people who live there as lab rats. They have no idea what life is like for folks down there—there is no empirical evidence that any of these programs work—and they never ask a cop on the ground what’s going on because they perceive themselves smarter than the flatfoot on the beat.
We don’t have a lock-‘em-up mentality here in Milwaukee, but there are people who need to be separated from society because they’re dangerous. Early on in their crime career I want to put a stop to it. I will continue to show the myths, the lies and how the system is failing horribly and prolonging the misery of good, law-abiding black people. It’s a lie that black people are locked up just for drug possession. The fact is 37.5 percent of jail inmates are black. If we released all people in jail on drug charges, 37 percent of blacks would still be in prison. Until we remedy some of the pathologies that lead to crime, these kids don’t have a chance. If we don’t fix generational poverty and hold people accountable for some of this behavior it will continue. That single mom doing the best she can shouldn’t have to dodge bullets or be afraid to let her kids play outside. She shouldn’t come home to find she was burglarized. It’s not just a property crime. You and I can file our insurance and get a brand-new TV or another car. She doesn’t have that. When her property is stolen, her whole life is turned upside down. I will continue to expose the lie that is criminal justice reform. It’s code language for normalizing criminal behavior.
The Rand Corp. estimates the true cost of crime is $300 billion per year on average. People say it costs more to put a guy in prison than to send him to Harvard. Not this guy; he could never get into Harvard. We are better off locking people up because it’s not costing us anywhere near $300 billion a year to incarcerate people. If somebody goes out and commits a violent felony and doesn’t do any hard time we have rewarded that behavior. Ask a behavioral scientist and he or she will tell you if you want more of a behavior reward it.
The only authority figure a lot of these kids are growing up with is some rapper or gangster—not a responsible adult male. It’s sad. How do you reverse that when you’re Michael Brown’s age? That’s the problem in our society—not the police. Too many young black males are growing up without positive role models. Black-on-black crime is another huge problem. In Milwaukee 80 percent of homicide victims in 2014 were black and 75 percent of the perpetrators were black. I’m not saying we shouldn’t discuss the situation, but it seems we focus on the anomalies and outliers instead of the problem because it seems too daunting. I’m the product of a two-parent household. Mom and Dad are still with me today and have been married 62 years. Dad was a U.S. Army Airborne Ranger in Korea. He raised me with a sense of discipline and respect for authority. It’s a virtue to have that instilled in you. Whenever Dad was adamant about getting a point across he would ask, ‘Is that clear?’ and I had to answer ‘Clear, sir.’
Opportunist: Can you tell us something about yourself that people may be surprised to learn?
Sheriff Clarke: No, because what you see is what you get. I’m my own kind of cat. I like country music, which raises a couple of eyebrows, I guess, because black guys are supposed to like rap music. [Laughs] I ride horses and I wear cowboy hats. All of that is known. I don’t surprise too many people. I think at first I did because this is outside the box of what a black guy should be. Some people still don’t like it. Sometimes it’s smashmouth politics—politics turned into a dog fight. It’s a cutthroat business. If you’re not willing to get hit, you won’t survive long. I didn’t make these rules about politics but I sure know how to play by them. And I do have an in-your-face style. Some people call it intimidating. Well, you know what? I have a strong personality and a command presence. That’s who I am and I won’t apologize for who I am.
Leslie Stone is an award-winning writer, editor and journalist with more than two decades of experience covering business, finance, real estate and lifestyle issues for newspapers, magazines and online publications. Originally from Virginia, she currently resides between Florida and Michigan. Follow Leslie on Twitter: @lescstone.
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