Tough-guy sheriff allied with Trump lost a staring contest, called for backup

Sheriff Clarke’s lawyers say the man shook his head in “a physically threatening manner.”

Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke. CREDIT: AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke. CREDIT: AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke is reportedly under consideration for a top job in President Donald Trump’s Department of Homeland Security.

But while Clarke is an appalling choice to moderates and progressives because of his long track record of authoritarian views and reported sadistic jailhouse policies, antipathy to the pick from perceived political enemies seems to have only boosted Clarke’s celebrity on the political right.

The sheriff’s newest scandal is different, however.

Texts and court documents from Wisconsin show that when a civilian was rude to him on an airplane last year, Clarke called for armed backup. The sheriff texted his deputies to instruct them to wait at the gate and interrogate a man named Dan Black. Black’s offense? Staring at Clarke and shaking his head slowly, in what Clarke’s attorneys now call “a physically threatening manner.”

The incident has been in the news since this winter, when Black sued, accusing Clarke of trying to intimidate him and abusing his office as sheriff. But the text messages Clarke sent to his staff about it all are new, uncovered Thursday by Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reporter Daniel Bice.

“Just a field interview, no arrest unless he becomes an asshole with your guys,” Clarke texted to a subordinate who had already been made aware the sheriff had told deputies to meet him at his gate.

In addition to raising the prospect of a vindictive arrest of Black should be “become an asshole” when approached, Clarke expressed frustration that a citizen who disapproved of him would have the temerity to approach him on a plane about it.

“Question for him is why he said anything to me. Why didn’t he just keep his mouth shut?” Clarke added in the texts.

The incident is reminiscent of an unofficial but very real category of non-crimes referred to as “contempt of cop” in police circles, which some officers treat as a reasonable cause to arrest someone. In this case, Black’s experience constitutes a detention but not an arrest in legal terms.

Trump and Clarke are birds of a feather. Clarke emerged as a valuable public ally during the campaign and has called for anti-Trump protesters to be arrested. Trump had reportedly decided to hire him into his administration as of mid-May.

If one had to rank Clarke’s most disqualifying resume points, this would be roughly second to top.

The top bullet point: A man was killed in Clarke’s jails when deputies shut off the inmate’s water for days and ignored his pleas for something to drink over nearly a week — a medieval dungeon death in suburban Milwaukee in the year 2016. A local grand jury has recommended murder charges against the deputies who allegedly killed Terrill Thomas last April.

The rest of Clarke’s resume is bland by comparison to Thomas’ death and this new, petty abuse of office to intimidate a citizen for criticizing him face to face. He also appears to have plagiarized research done by the American Civil Liberties Union in his 2013 masters thesis for a degree in homeland security — and then derided the reporter who caught him in 47 separate instances of copy-pasting from the civil liberties group without quotation marks.

On the scale of moral gravity, Clarke’s interactions with Black fall somewhere between plagiarism and overseeing a prisoner’s death by dehydration. A citizen saw him on a plane, stopped at his seat, asked if he was the sheriff, and then shook his head at him for a moment. That’s the sum total of the interaction the two had, according to both Black’s account and Clarke’s own in dueling filings from Black’s lawsuit.

Clarke’s reaction — to tell his employees, all public servants sworn to protect the public’s safety and uphold the law, to come to the airport, shake the guy down, and arrest him if “he becomes an asshole with your guys” — strikes Black and others as an abuse of office.

Black’s lawsuit is only one piece of the fallout from Clarke’s decision that disrespecting him on a plane merits a criminal investigation. The Milwaukee County auditor is also trying to investigate whether Clarke’s deployment of on-duty officers constituted a “waste or abuse of county resources,” Bice notes. Clarke has refused to cooperate with that investigation, which is now reportedly on hold as county officials wait to see if Clarke really will join Trump’s administration.

Since Black filed suit, Clarke has belittled the man as a hypersensitive “snowflake.” He’s posted cheesy memes online asserting that if Clarke had really wanted to intimidate Black, “you wouldn’t be around to whine about it.”

But in court, Clarke’s lawyers are making the sheriff himself sound like the tenderfoot in this situation. They assert that Black’s attempt to stare down the sheriff was done “in a physically threatening manner” and otherwise emphasize just how scary the whole thing was for their tough-guy client.

“Plaintiff then, while standing over Clarke and in very close proximity to Clarke given the confines of the airline cabin,” they wrote in a filing, “and in a physically threatening manner, stared at Clarke and shook his head at him for a prolonged period of time.”