Our sheriff isn’t like most American sheriffs. He’s a self-proclaimed Democrat, an outspoken Tea Party activist, and a regular on prime time cable news.
You may have seen Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke on one of his numerous appearances on the Fox News Channel lashing out at President Obama. You might recognize him from his appearance before the National Rifle Association proposing the placement of a semi-automatic rifle on our country’s presidential seal. You may have even watched his infamous 2013 campaign ad advocating vigilantism instead of dialing 911 in the event of a burglary.
The country is just now getting to know Sheriff Clarke, but I’m all too familiar with his inflammatory antics. His proclivity for provocation coupled with his distorted view of black America has grown more extreme over the years, earning him numerous appearances on Fox News. He has helped the network spread a slew of dangerous narratives that serve only to rouse the most extreme elements of the Tea Party.
It’s clear that Fox News and Sheriff Clarke have developed a symbiotic relationship. He needs the cable news network for its national platform; Fox needs a black sheriff to give voice to the dog-whistle narratives its anchors dare not vocalize themselves. Do you think Megyn Kelly could get away with making the claim that racial inequality is a thing of the past or calling Attorney General Eric Holder a “race hustler”?
As easy as it is to be enraged by Sheriff Clarke’s flagrant grandstanding, we should recognize that he isn’t the problem but only a symptom. In today’s conservative media landscape, the need to inflame will always undermine the responsibility to inform, and reporting will always take a backseat to ratings. Both Fox News and Sheriff Clarke realize that one can bypass the complexities and nuances of sensitive topics by simply maintaining the us versus them approach used by right-wing media giant Ann Coulter.
But the sheriff’s brand of hostile punditry is especially irresponsible coming from someone wearing a uniform and badge.
Last month during a congressional committee hearing on policing strategies, Sheriff Clarke was given an opportunity to address the strained relationship between police and the communities they’re sworn to protect. Rather than providing the committee with the sensible testimony one would expect from a law enforcement official with 37 years of experience, he offered some of the same ugly, accusatory rhetoric we’ve come to expect from Milwaukee’s new Tea Party folk hero.
Sheriff Clarke’s biting temperament was on full display as he vilified the federal government for intervening in local law enforcement issues and slammed the “liberal mainstream media” for their coverage of high-profile shootings. He continued his ongoing absolution of America’s police from any and all wrongdoing and insisted that “black underclass subculture behavior” and hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter are the crux of the problem.
When we identify the obvious racial inequities in our society, we do so in our desire to repair that which is broken, not to demonize those who have committed their lives to protecting the public. We recognize that good police officers play a vital role in our communities, but we can no longer be complacent in a culture that breeds bad ones. Citizens, lawmakers, and community stakeholders should to be able to debate these issues thoughtfully and express our collective frustration over our country’s failure to live up to its promise of “justice for all” without Sheriff Clarke and others calling us “cop haters” and “criminal-loving elitists.”
Sheriff Clarke and his Tea Party followers live in a black-and-white world where merely investigating accusations of police discrimination and racial mistreatment is tantamount to treason. He is unapologetic in his blind defense of law enforcement officials, even in the most egregious circumstances. After the Justice Department released its report detailing “unlawful bias” among Ferguson’s police force, Sheriff Clarke immediately took to Fox to emphatically reject the findings, calling them a “witch hunt.” “I’m not buying one word of [Holder’s] conclusion,” he told Neil Cavuto. “The attorney general doesn’t have any integrity anymore.”
Unlike Sheriff Clarke, I refuse to dismiss this growing crisis. Recently, I introduced an amendment to a federal spending bill that would increase funding for the Mentally Ill Offender Treatment and Crime Reduction Act, enhancing training for police responding to individuals experiencing a mental health crisis. It is my hope that improved training and preparation will lead to fewer tragedies like that of Dontre Hamilton, a young man whose life was cut short after an officer shot him multiple times in a public park. Both Sheriff Clarke and I are well aware of his case. He was our constituent.
I’m not a fan of Sheriff Clarke or his politics, but I do believe he could provide a valuable voice to this national conversation. Unfortunately, his appetite for the spotlight continues to erode what little credibility he has left, and his authority is further weakened under the weight of his own theatrics. If the sheriff truly wants to help us, it’s time for him to prove that he’s more than just another partisan agitator with a badge and a cowboy hat.
The self-proclaimed “people’s sheriff” needs to drop the sideshow act and get serious. Until then, I can only wonder if Sheriff Clarke is still a lawman or just a guy who plays one on TV.