Milwaukee Sheriff David A. Clarke Jr.’s podcast, The People’s Sheriff, begins with a slide-guitar and a boot-stomp beat before segueing into the rich baritone of the sheriff himself. Over the next 40 minutes, Clarke holds forth on the topics of the day: Planned Parenthood is “what I call ‘Planned Genocide.’” Public schools are so dangerous “there should be a body camera on every teacher.” Higher education has become “a racketeering ring.” The sheriff is also a big fan of presidential candidate Donald Trump: “He gets us. He understands us.”
Clarke, an African American law-enforcement leader who favors cowboy hats and often appears atop a horse, fights crime in Milwaukee, the U.S. city that has been called “the worst place” for African Americans to live. He has become a fixture of conservative media. Glenn Beck presents the sheriff’s podcast on his multimedia juggernaut, The Blaze, and he is a frequent guest on Fox News. Clarke is also popular on Twitter, where he recently tweeted to his 127,000 followers that the young activists of the Black Lives Matter movement—he calls it “Black Lies Matter”—will eventually “join forces with ISIS.” He made sure to note, “You heard it first here.”
Lately, Clarke has been focused on what he calls “the myth of mass incarceration,” warning that recent efforts by some of his fellow conservatives to reduce prison sentences and ease punishment for drug offenses are little more than “cuddling up to criminals.” He believes that rehabilitation is “not something for the criminal-justice system to do” and that incarceration should primarily function as a deterrent to breaking the law.
This past March at the Conservative Political Action Conference, Clarke participated in a panel discussion with Pat Nolan, a prominent Washington activist who was once imprisoned, and Ken Cuccinelli, the former attorney general of Virginia. Both have been at the forefront of conservative efforts to reduce incarceration through a campaign called Right on Crime. The success of those efforts in traditionally tough states like Texas and Georgia can make change look inevitable.
But, at the conference, Clarke aimed to dispel that notion, telling the audience, “Folks, you’re not being told the truth when it comes to this criminal-justice reform.” Then, as they quibbled over statistics, Clarke said of Nolan: “The gentleman over here says, ‘Figures don’t lie.’ I disagree. I say, ‘Figures lie, and liars figure.’” The audience laughed and cheered. (“He essentially called me a liar, which is stunning,” Nolan told me afterward.)
In closing, Clarke pivoted to an emotional appeal for a more punitive approach to those who sell small amounts of drugs—a crime many conservatives say should not be punished with long prison sentences. “When you live in the ghetto,” Clarke said, “and you’re that single mom, and you’re working your tail off to keep your kid on the straight and narrow … You know you have to send your kid out into that street, and who is the first person he’s going to run into? The dope man. You find relief that we keep these individuals locked up.”
His warm reception at the conservative gathering came after a series of small wins: congressional compromises had watered down efforts both to reduce mandatory minimums and to create more opportunities for early release. Clarke and his allies, like a cadre of senators who defer to the misgivings of prosecutors and FBI officers, are fiercely opposed to any kind of criminal-justice reform. “I think what we’re seeing is sort of The Empire Strikes Back,” says Nolan. “There’s a combination of … people that live off the current system really ferociously fighting back.” Several of Nolan’s Right on Crime associates declined to speak on the record about Clarke: “They probably don’t want to anger someone who is on Fox News all the time.”
The 2016 election season is one reason for the justice-reform backlash, as candidates fortify themselves against attacks that they are soft on crime. Republican front-runner Trump has set a particularly harsh tone, calling lethal injection “too comfortable a way to go.” His onetime challenger, Senator Ted Cruz, once supported shortening federal drug sentences, but now he opposes the idea.
Michael O’Hear, a law professor at Marquette University in Milwaukee who studies Wisconsin polling data, says, “I think this whole presidential campaign has brought out a much broader phenomenon: a divide within the right between political elites and rank-and-file.” This trend has been reflected in dozens of issues, from immigration to abortion to defense, and now it is hitting criminal justice. “A lot of party elites”—Newt Gingrich, Grover Norquist, the Koch Brothers—“have taken an increasingly skeptical stance towards tough on-crime policies, but that’s not necessarily shared by ordinary Republican voters.”
Those ordinary Republican voters now have a spokesman in Clarke (who declined to be interviewed for this story). He channels the doubts and fears of many Americans—including many African Americans, who are disproportionately the victims of crime. He is, for some, an uncomfortable reminder that black Americans by and large supported tough sentencing laws a generation ago. For others, he represents an objection to the idea that all African Americans share the Black Lives Matter view of the police as an occupying force.
Debate over crime and punishment is especially acrimonious in Wisconsin, where Clarke has been in the middle of the fray for years. He fought local leaders when they attempted to reduce incarceration and promote rehabilitation, he supported a push to allow concealed weapons on Wisconsin college campuses, and he served as an informal adviser to Governor Scott Walker, who in his short-lived presidential campaign emerged as a leading voice for a punitive approach to crime. In other words, Clarke comes to the national fight over criminal justice with plenty of battle scars.
My dad used to tell me, ‘Look son, opportunity does not come knocking,’” Clarke said on a recent podcast. “It’s usually running down the street, and you have to chase it down, you have to tackle it, and then you have to hang on to it.”
Clarke’s father, who was a paratrooper during the Korean War, moved to Milwaukee for a job with the post office. The sheriff has said his two-parent household—which “unfortunately in the black community is no longer the norm, and it’s had devastating effects”—gave him respect for authority and personal responsibility. When he was 12, the Clarkes moved to a neighborhood where they were one of two African American families; in a largely positive magazine profile published in 2003, Clarke says he weathered racial epithets. He attended a mostly white, all-male Catholic high school.
Clarke’s ability to cross racial and political lines has proved helpful in a city where such lines are sharply drawn. In the 2012 presidential election, President Obama received 67 percent of the vote in Milwaukee County, where the electorate is predominantly African American, but just 32 percent in the surrounding white suburbs. In 2014, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel declared the city “the most polarized part of a polarized state in a polarized nation.”
At 21, Clarke joined the city’s police force and spent two decades rising from patrol officer to homicide detective to commander. Eventually, he headed the division that ran security for visiting politicians, among them then-Governor Scott McCallum. In 2002, the county sheriff resigned and McCallum appointed Clarke to the post, a move the new sheriff acknowledged would help the Republican governor appeal to black voters. And yet, Clarke declared himself a Democrat, though he did not join the state party, because “that’s what the family history was,” as he told National Review. (Milwaukee is overwhelmingly Democratic, so critics simply see his affiliation as an example of his opportunism.) He ran for mayor of Milwaukee in 2004 and lost but was reelected sheriff four times, most recently in 2014.
Like district attorneys (and unlike police chiefs), sheriffs are directly elected, which positions them to become iconoclastic public personalities. By far the most famous is Sheriff Joe Arpaio, of Arizona, who doubted the authenticity of Obama’s birth certificate and houses some prisoners in tents—even when the temperature rises to 145 degrees. Another is Richard Mack, also of Arizona, who runs the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association and who supported Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy in his armed standoff with the government; Mack suggested that Bundy use women and children as human shields for deterrence against any trigger-happy federal agents. In 2013, his group named Clarke “Sheriff of the Year.”
Appearing on local radio shows, Clarke became an early voice of the country’s anti-establishment mood. Clarke “talks like Donald Trump,” says Percy Pitzer, a former prison warden who now runs a nonprofit that works with the children of those behind bars. “He says what’s on his mind, and it makes sense to people.” Numerous Milwaukeeans interviewed for this story echoed the Trump comparison.
Though Clarke’s most vocal opponents are black leaders, he consistently polls well with Milwaukee’s black population. In August 2014, Clarke ran a 23 percent lead over his Democratic-primary challenger, a white police lieutenant named Chris Moews, in areas of the city that were at least two-thirds black, according to a Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel analysis. Some local critics chalk up that support to his skin color. But “when you look at older communities of color, there is a little more conservative thought going on there,” state Representative Mandela Barnes said. “In a primary-election electorate, you’re talking about older people,” and Clarke’s tough rhetoric makes them “feel safe.”
Clarke explains his popularity as a sign that African Americans are not nearly as opposed to tough-on-crime policies as is often assumed. For example, in the current Democratic presidential primary, Hillary Clinton has faced criticism—particularly from younger African American activists—for her support of the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, signed into law by her husband, which increased mandatory minimum penalties and helped disproportionately fill U.S. prisons with black men. The lawyer Michelle Alexander has famously called such high levels of incarceration the “new Jim Crow,” though the actual influence of the 1994 bill on this rise has been much debated.
Still, most black members of Congress at the time voted for the crime bill—as did Senator Bernie Sanders. Another crime bill, the 1986 measure to increase sentences for crack-cocaine possession, received similar black support. Backed by black pastors, mayors, and other community leaders, the bill’s supporters knew “that more blacks than whites were likely to be incarcerated,” wrote historians Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom, but they were driven by “a conviction that it might reduce the havoc on the streets where their constituents lived.”
Bill Clinton recently recounted this history in a bitter exchange with a Black Lives Matter activist. “I talked to a lot of African American groups,” the former president said, indicating a generational divide. “They thought black lives matter. They said, ‘Take this bill, because our kids are being shot in the street by gangs.’”
Beyond just desperation, moral judgment may have played a role in this knotted political history. “I recall hearing ‘That’s what he gets’ every time one of ‘our youngsters’ was arrested,” historian Michael Javen Fortner writes in his book Black Silent Majority. “I remember that from the pews of my Pentecostal church sanctified working- and middle-class African Americans distinguished between saints and sinners.”
Though Clarke cites this history approvingly, his critics, including Fortner, do not see an inheritor of this legacy. They see a shill whose race is being used to validate a backlash against legitimate criticisms of police brutality. “Fox News is always trying to find that black face that will legitimize their views,” Milwaukee Pastor Darryl Williams says, “and David Clarke just happens to be that person.”
Along with other conservatives, Clarke argues that entitlement programs made his fellow black Americans dependent on the state and fueled a breakdown in families that exacerbated crime. “The government handouts … are used like an intoxicating drug,” he said at a 2012 gathering of black conservatives in Washington. “We’re an emotional people … so when you start talking about government handouts, that’s a pleasing message.” The academic Thomas Sowell—whom Clarke often cites—has also blamed welfare programs for high rates of black-on-black violence. And even Bill Cosby once toured the country earning cheers by blaming poor parenting and cultural malaise for the heavy-handed police response young black men often face: “People getting shot in the back of the head over a piece of pound cake! And then we all run out and are outraged: ‘The cops shouldn’t have shot him.’ What the hell was he doing with the pound cake in his hand?”
Soon after he became sheriff, in 2003, Clarke urged the governor to support restrictions on firearms as a way to address Milwaukee’s high rates of violent crime. But he soon had a change of heart, when he realized, as he told National Review, that African Americans “are at the mercy of the criminal element here.” In 2013, he released ads urging Milwaukeeans to buy guns because “armed criminals are being put back in the street by a soft-on-crime court system even before the ink dries on police reports.” In another ad, he said, “You could beg for mercy from a violent criminal, hide under the bed, or you can fight back.”
The ads vaulted Clarke to national attention, as his 2014 reelection briefly became a symbol of the U.S. gun debate. The National Rifle Association asked its members to donate to Clarke’s campaign, while gun-control advocate and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg donated $150,000 to support Clarke’s challenger. Clarke won, and he began appearing on Fox News, telling reporters about a long history of black support for gun rights that was steeped in resistance to lynch mobs and other forms of white oppression. He cited Ida B. Wells, who famously said, “The Winchester rifle deserved a place of honor in every black home.”
Less than a week before Clarke won his primary, Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri, ignited massive protests over police treatment of black Americans. Clarke became a vocal defender of law enforcement, earning headlines with claims that “police brutality ended in the 1960s.” Clarke also claimed that Obama and then-Attorney General Eric Holder were imperiling police officers and emboldening criminals by taking the complaints of activists seriously. He said police officers would be more reluctant to do their jobs because of the threat that they might “become the next Darren Wilson,” referring to the police officer who shot Brown and was pilloried for it (though not indicted). This idea, sometimes dubbed the “Ferguson Effect” has both prominent defenders and critics, though no statistics have definitively supported it.
Some of Clarke’s harshest vitriol was reserved for black critics of police brutality: He called Holder an “A-hole,” said Al Sharpton was a “charlatan” who “ought to go back to the gutter,” and condemned Beyoncé for her Black Panther-inspired outfit and performance at the 2016 Super Bowl. Though a 2013 Pew Research Center survey found that roughly 70 percent of blacks perceived police and courts as unfair to them, there is a strong countercurrent to the Black Lives Matter movement’s focus on police excesses. Many black leaders argue that the young activists should express equal outrage at the high levels of black-on-black murder, instead of only when an “outsider” is the perpetrator. Jermaine Reed, who hosts a radio show and directs a Milwaukee nonprofit that works with foster children, says, “Like Sheriff Clarke, I’d like to see the same level of protest and outrage when the violence is within our own community.”
Clarke is an increasingly visible participant in these conversations. Last August, he appeared on Fox News with Peggy Hubbard, a black grandmother from Ferguson whose speech against the Black Lives Matter movement went viral. The less-noticed part of her argument was an endorsement of incarceration. “I told my children … if you go to jail, I am not getting you out,” she said. “You will stay there. You will do the time. I am not coming to visit you. I ain’t sending you magazines.” Clarke has made similar arguments since at least 2011, turning anger over high rates of black-on-black crime into an argument for incarceration. He says that easing criminal penalties would be “discriminatory” because “thugs are unleashed into minority communities to victimize yet again.”
Such views, aided by Clarke, have been picked up at the highest levels of national politics. He has testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee, where he took the attorney general to task: He accused Holder of “outright hostility” toward police, and he claimed that after Ferguson, Holder’s “incendiary rhetoric sparked unjustified hatred toward America’s law enforcement.” Last September, Clarke guest-hosted The Sean Hannity Show and talked with presidential candidate Cruz about the vilification of police officers. Together, they argued that increasing rates of homicides and gun crimes in Baltimore were the result of a Department of Justice investigation into the death of Freddie Gray, who died in police custody, prompting protests—another case of cowed police and emboldened criminals.
And after being slated to handle security at Trump events in Milwaukee County, Clarke called anti-Trump protesters “misfits” who “only understand one thing, and that is force,” which left some local activist groups worried about their own safety.
Even as Clarke was building his national reputation, the sheriff was struggling to maintain his power back home.
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, one 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 has been a frequent lone dissenter (and a frequent absentee) on the county’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, which includes the district attorney, the chief judge, the public defender, and others. Last year, when the MacArthur Foundation gave Milwaukee $150,000 to reduce racial disparities in who was being incarcerated, Clarke released a statement calling the program “an exercise in liberal white guilt.”
“Notice that one person is missing from the hold-hands-and-sing-Kumbaya group,” he wrote. “Yours truly! No surprise there! No dissenting or diverse views are welcome with these soft-on-crime criminal coddlers.”
It was part of a pattern: In 2012, when the council applied for a $50,000 grant from a state agency for the Milwaukee Homicide Review Commission—which studies ways to reduce the county’s high murder rate—Clarke broke from his colleagues and sent a letter urging the agency not to give the commission any money, because it had become “a self-perpetuating cottage industry” that bolsters the other leaders’ agendas to be softer on criminals.
The county got the grant anyway. “He has not been a collaborative player in our criminal-justice system,” says former Chief Judge Jeffrey Kremers. “The reality is that despite his tough rhetoric and his big persona, he has a very limited role.”
In 2014, Clarke wrote another letter, this one to Kremers and District Attorney John Chisholm. After a 10-year-old girl named Sierra Guyton was wounded during a shooting (she later died), Clarke argued that the shooter had benefited from the two leaders’ embrace of deferred prosecutions. He then asked them to suspend plea-bargaining and any sentences other than incarceration for all major crimes. Kremers responded that the shooter had not been given a deferred prosecution, and Chisholm wrote that suspending all plea bargains would clog the entire system and thereby make the community less safe. He also noted that Clarke had issued a press release on the matter before confronting him directly, which “certainly raises the appearance that you are engaged in election-year politics.” Normally known for his quiet, conflict-averse manner, Chisholm added, “I know it is more fun to style yourself as the lone voice saying things no one else will say, but the things you say have all been said before, and require neither courage nor particular insight.”
Clarke’s relationship with County Executive Chris Abele—who oversees his budget but cannot directly influence how the money is spent—has been even more toxic. Clarke has often refused to release data on his department’s work. After the county took over the House of Correction, Clarke sued Abele over cuts to his budget and accused him of being a heroin addict and of having “penis envy.” Abele called Clarke a “childish bully.”
“For a while, the only time his office would call mine would be a hand-delivered letter lecturing me about something,” Abele told me, “or his communications person would get in touch with us to see if I’d be interested in going on his radio show.”
Numerous other county leaders contacted for this story declined to comment on Clarke. “People are fearful of retribution from him,” says one political operative who asked to remain anonymous for precisely that reason. “Conservative talk radio in Milwaukee is huge … It’s a nonstop drumbeat all day of whatever the talking points are, and Sheriff Clarke shapes those.”
Some local figures who have stayed out of the fights say they wish Clarke would soften his style, so he could act as a bridge across the region’s racial and political divisions. If the sheriff “could take that talk and work to bring the community together,” says Pitzer, the former warden, “how much good would that do?”
Clarke’s political style adds a particular brand of animosity to his battles with other county leaders, but their fights are a microcosm of a larger national debate taking place in Congress, state legislatures, and countless county boards—especially in election years. “We know to an absolute certainty that an unfortunately high percentage of those [released] offenders will go and commit subsequent crimes,” Cruz said recently. “And every one of us who votes to release violent criminals from prison prior to the expiration of their sentence can fully expect to be held accountable by our constituents.”
Milwaukee is a key place to watch on this front. In March, Clarke endorsed county Alderman Robert Donovan in an attempt to unseat Mayor Tom Barrett. The alderman made crime the focal point of his campaign after homicide numbers in the city jumped from fewer than 100 in 2014 to roughly 150 in 2015. Donovan pledged to hire more police and to “pressure our district attorney and judges to get tough on criminals, especially on those who resort to violence.” Donovan lost, but the issue remains. This August, District Attorney Chisholm will face a challenger, a black attorney named Verona Swanigan. She argues, not unlike Clarke, that current policies let too many violent criminals out on bail, though she doesn’t share Clarke’s harsh rhetoric on drug crimes.
Campaigning in Milwaukee’s black community has proved to her that both reformers and reactionaries can be seen as out of touch. “The community doesn’t feel safe, period, and they don’t know who to blame for that, since we have this breakdown between our leaders,” she told me. “They don’t like the sentences being handed out; they feel like drugs can be too long, but guns aren’t long enough ... I’m happy to realize my community knows that crime is not a one-pony show.”
Clarke has not endorsed a 2016 presidential candidate, though he regularly praises Trump. And he has not run for higher office since a failed mayoral bid in 2004. But does he have larger aspirations? Many of his supporters have suggested Trump should consider him for various appointments or even as a running mate.
Clarke remains coy about his goals. Last year, in a speech before the National Rifle Association—after first suggesting that the bald eagle in the national seal should be holding a semi-automatic rifle—he said, “I’m not running for anything right now.”
He then paused and smiled as the room erupted in cheers.
This piece was reported through The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization that covers the U.S. criminal-justice system.