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As indictments loom over Milwaukee County Jail after a high-profile death in custody, the county’s controversial sheriff, David Clarke, is moving into a role in the Department of Homeland Security.
David Clarke, the controversial sheriff of Wisconsin’s Milwaukee County and a conservative media darling, is joining the Trump administration as an assistant secretary in the Department of Homeland Security. Clarke announced the move in a local radio interview Wednesday afternoon.
The hiring comes as public scrutiny of the jail he oversees in Milwaukee reaches a fever pitch. There are about 3,200 county jails in the United States, but few have drawn as much recent attention as the one he supervises. Four inmates died while in its custody last year, and another sued the jail after her baby died shortly after birth. But local prosecutors have focused their attention on the fate of Terrill Thomas, one of the four, who died of dehydration in solitary confinement. He was 38 years old.
Investigators probing Thomas’s April 2016 death soon discovered it came after jail officials cut off water access to his cell for seven days. What followed was a flurry of legal activity against the jail’s leadership. His family filed a federal lawsuit against Clarke and the jail in March, alleging that Thomas had been “subjected to a form of torture” by being denied water. An inquest jury said Monday there was probable cause to charge seven jail officials, including two supervisors, with felony neglect of a prisoner. Clarke was not among them, but District Attorney John Chisholm told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel that he could charge more or fewer officials than what the jury recommends.
News outlets previously reported that the Trump administration was considering Clarke to lead the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Partnership and Engagement. In that role, as an assistant secretary, he would be the department’s top liaison with the more than 18,000 local law-enforcement agencies throughout the country. Fortunately for Clarke, the post wouldn’t require Senate approval, sparing him from what would likely be a contentious confirmation battle about any role he may have had in the jail-neglect case. The White House acknowledged move to HuffPost shortly after Clarke’s announcement.
Clarke built his brand not on policing, per se, but on politics. He’ll now have the chance to operate in a more political realm, and at the same time extricate himself from a growing scandal at the jail he runs. Despite that turmoil, Clarke’s ascendancy into the Trump administration isn’t necessarily a surprise. With the defeat of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio in last November’s election in Arizona, Clarke is now the most prominent conservative sheriff in the country—and the most controversial.
His rigid conservative views, as well as his outspokenness in sharing them, made the Wisconsin sheriff a popular guest on conservative media outlets in recent years. Amid increased public scrutiny of law-enforcement agencies—scrutiny Trump administration officials actively oppose—a black conservative sheriff condemning the Black Lives Matter movement on Fox News was a potent image.
Clarke’s opining often went beyond policing issues: On his podcast, he referred to Planned Parenthood as “Planned Genocide” and American higher education as “a racketeering ring.” But his most frequent target is criminal-justice reform—an issue that’s increasingly popular on both the left and the right, but one that’s been dismissed by Clarke as “utterly destructive to the rule of law and public safety.” In one notable instance, his analysis repeated racist tropes about 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,” Clarke told Glenn Beck in a 2015 interview.
Left-leaning activist groups receive most of his ire, and his language toward them often veers into the eschatological. In a speech at the Republican National Convention last summer where he endorsed Trump, he compared the Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street movements to “anarchy” and described protests in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore as “the collapse of the social order.” The previous year, he predicted that Black Lives Matter would “join forces with ISIS” to destroy the American government. Clarke’s antipathy toward protest movements apparently extends only to those on the left: In a tweet one month before the November election, Clarke described the federal government and media as “corrupt” and said it was “pitchforks and torches time.”
Ironically, despite his national profile as a tough-talking lawman, Clarke’s law-enforcement responsibilities as sheriff of Milwaukee County are fairly limited. The sheriff’s department is a law-enforcement agency, but virtually all of the day-to-day policing in his county is performed by the Milwaukee Police Department. Clarke served on that police force for almost three decades, including as a detective on the city’s homicide squad. His current portfolio is more administrative than investigative, but as Maurice Chammah noted in a 2016 profile for this magazine, the sheriff’s exercise of his office has still drawn criticism:
Traditionally, Clarke’s department has investigated a small number of crimes, patrolled the county’s highways and parks, managed security at the courthouse and airport, and run the county’s two jails, [the Milwaukee County Jail] downtown for pretrial detainees and one south of the city for those serving their sentences. Previously, a county-executive appointee ran the latter—the Milwaukee House of Correction—until 2008, when a federal report found it was plagued by security and safety problems. As a result, Clarke was granted control. He was initially lauded for revamping the jail and overcoming a deficit that ran into the millions—all in just a few months.
But over the next five years, the praise disappeared as Clarke eliminated nearly all programs for prisoners (except a boot camp) and woke prisoners up with bullhorns. He was a proponent of “nutraloaf,” a mix of chicken, biscuit mix, vegetables, and beans served to inmates being disciplined. After one inmate sued, saying that a rancid nutraloaf meal caused him to vomit so much he lost 14 pounds in 19 days, an insurance company settled on the food manufacturer’s behalf. In 2013, the county board moved to take back control of the facility. Clarke in turn sued them but lost. Since then, the county has increased job-training and GED programs in the jail, and those who finish their sentences are enrolled in health care through the Affordable Care Act; the jail is one of the first in the country to do so.
Clarke hasn’t backed down from his draconian approach toward those under his jurisdiction in the jail. In statements to reporters about the Thomas family lawsuit, the sheriff directed attention to Thomas’s alleged criminal activities. It’s worth noting that because he died in jail custody before a trial, Thomas wasn’t convicted of those offenses in a court of law.
“I have nearly 1,000 inmates. I don’t know all their names but is this the guy who was in custody for shooting up the Potawatomi Casino, causing one man to be hit by gunfire [and] while in possession of a firearm by a career convicted felon?" Clarke told the Associated Press in March. “The media never reports that in stories about him. If that is him, then at least I know who you are talking about.” He did not address the history of psychiatric issues described by Thomas’s family in their lawsuit.
One can see echoes of Trump’s combative approach to controversy in Clarke’s words: a hyperfocus on alleged criminal misconduct by others, thinly veiled insinuations of media bias, the sidestepping of personal accountability. The degree to which elements of that approach affected Milwaukee County Jail’s operations is unclear. But it would seem to make Clarke a natural fit for an administration that also views the world, and especially the justice system, in stark and uncompromising terms.
Matt Ford is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where this article was originally published. The article is part of The Atlantic's “The Presence of Justice” project, which is supported by a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge.