Skip Navigation

The Last Thing America Needs Is Sheriff David Clarke In the Trump Administration

A sheriff who cannot run his own jail competently has no business setting national policy.

May 3, 2017

Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke has made a national name for himself with a loud mouth that usually is filled with angry words. He called the January women’s march on Washington a “freak show.” He calls the “Black Lives Matter” protest movement “Black Lies Matter”and says it is a terrorist group fighting a race war against America. More pedestrianly, there is his roiling feud with Milwaukee’s mayor and a dispute with an airline passenger who says Clarke’s deputies hassled him after he shook his head at the sheriff.

On and on Clarke rails, bullying those with whom he disagrees, consistently shilling for the Trump administration he soon may join (and may be desperate to join if things in his hometown get any worse). Justice Department consent decrees aren’t reasoned attempts to reform bad policing, he says, they represent instead the “infusion of race politics into local policing.” Officials in so-called “sanctuary cities” aren’t trying to properly deploy limited police resources, he believes, but instead are criminals who should be prosecuted for refusing to aid federal immigration efforts.

Pick the outermost boundaries of the Trump administration’s histrionic approach to criminal justice, then go past it, to the grim land of “American carnage,” and there you will find Clarke loudly staking out his turf. Yet Clarke has been uncharacteristically silent about the growing evidence of misconduct, indifference, and incompetence at his own county jail. If he cannot complete the relatively simple chore of keeping his own inmates safe why should anyone trust that he can help implement national policy? 

We now know, for example, thanks to a prosecutor’s inquest underway in Milwaukee, that a mentally ill inmate in Clarke’s jail died of dehydration because guards refused to give him water for seven days despite the pleas of other inmates who appreciated the victim’s plight. This is unacceptable on every level and not one of those infamous “gray areas” in the world of correctional accountability. Jailers must give inmates water. They must treat mentally ill inmates appropriately.

Even David Clarke knows this. Surely the jurors at the inquest do. On May 1, after another day of grim testimony, they recommended charges against each of the seven jail employees implicated in the inmate’s death. Yet when first questioned about the dehydration death Clarke did not immediately express regret or pledge to fix jailhouse policies to ensure the safety of other inmates. Instead, he tried to turn the tragedy into a joke by pretending that he didn’t know the victim’s name (it’s Terrill Thomas). Then he seemed to justify the mistreatment of Thomas by focusing on the inmate’s alleged crimes.

There have been some modest reforms inside the jail since the Thomas case came to light—guards cannot unilaterally deprive an inmate of water, for example—but still no evidence that Clarke has taken responsibility for what happened on his watch or held accountable those responsible. If Clarke has fired anyone because of Thomas’s death the public hasn’t heard about it. A surprise given how quick he is to criticize others for what he believes are their failings in governance. All Clarke has done is blame the victim and the media for covering the story.

Three new lawsuits, for example,  offer a sense of what life was like for the inmates in Clarke’s jail last year while the sheriff was gallivanting around the country railing on Democrats and Hillary Clinton (and Barack Obama). Four inmates died there in suspicious circumstances in a six-month period. The family of Terill Thomas’, the inmate who died of hydration, has sued, claiming that Clarke’s guards essentially tortured him. Another federal complaint against Clarke and company alleges that jail staff negligently treated a mentally ill pregnant inmate whose baby died promptly after she delivered it. When her water broke, she alleges, the guards in the maximum-security unit laughed at her.

A third new suit broadens the allegations of mistreatment of pregnant women. Perhaps as many as 40 pregnant women inside the jail were forced to give birth while shackled, a new federal civil rights complaint alleges. That practice has been widely rejected in other jurisdictions, and is not used by the federal Bureau of Prisons. The litigation, and the circumstances upon which it is based, explain why the Obama-era Justice Department reportedly considered launching an investigation into Clarke’s jail (an investigation far less likely to proceed now that Clarke ally Jeff Sessions is running the Justice Department).

In normal times, in a normal administration, Clarke’s inability to manage his own local jail with any competence would automatically disqualify him from a post in the federal government. His hyperbolic comments on virtually every topic in his subject area would render him a political liability as a federal law enforcement official. And his lack of diplomacy, humility and resistance to oversight, would presage future legal and political disasters for any administration dumb enough to bring him on board. (Incidentally, these failings also would typically disqualify Clarke for the U.S. Senate, a post some want him to seek in 2018).

But these are not normal times and this is not a normal administration. Clarke’s name has surfaced again and again as a potential fit in the administration. This time, according to Politico, Clarke is a candidate for assistant secretary at the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Partnership and Engagement, which coordinates outreach to local law enforcement. He may or may not make the cut. “It’s not a done deal yet,” a “senior administration official” says. Good. Bringing Clarke to the Department of Homeland Security, and giving him even some mid-level bureaucrat’s job, would be a disaster for America.

Meanwhile, back in Milwaukee, the official inquest proceeds, and so does the litigation, which means that the sheriff won’t be able to duck accountability forever. Sooner, rather than later, he’ll have to answer for his management – or lack of it – at the jail. Sooner, rather than later, he won’t be able to mock or bully the federal judge who will make damning findings of facts and conclusions of law against Clarke and his subordinates. Whether Clarke has escaped to Washington when the reckoning comes depends, for now anyway, on the voters of Wisconsin and the President of the United States.

The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.