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.