What David Clarke Thinks About Homeland Security

The D.C.-bound sheriff favors going full “enemy combatant” status on terrorism suspects.

Barring a surprise official announcement to the contrary, it appears David Clarke will be stepping down from the post of Milwaukee County sheriff to become an administrator at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security – the assistant secretary in charge of the Office of Partnership and Engagement, which coordinates various efforts with state and local police. By doing so, our boundary-pushing sheriff (to put it mildly) will join the national battle against terrorism and presumably put some of his own ideas into practice. What ideas are those? Well, let’s refer Clarke’s February book, Cop Under Fire.

Point no. 1  from Cop Under Fire: the FBI has not done a good job of fighting domestic terror, and part of the problem is that as a law enforcement agency, the FBI waits for probable cause before arresting suspects. Clarke doesn’t want to play by these rules. He believes that even U.S. citizens suspected of terrorism should be arrested and held indefinitely as enemy combatants. “It’s time for our agencies to realize that we are at war with ISIS and need to change from a law enforcement model to a wartime model,” he writes. A few pages later, he objects to how the war on terror has led to reactionary measures like airport searches that impinge on civil rights.

While the FBI is the wrong tool for the job, he also depicts DHS as bloated and misguided:

“In one of his rants, Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, spiritual leader of al-Qaeda, indicated that part of the objective of the 9/11 terror attack in the United States was to turn the American people against their government for intruding on their freedoms and to bankrupt our government with security spending. Mission accomplished. Even after this overreaction, two known terror suspects were able to board separate commercial airliners, one with a bomb in his underwear, and the other with a bomb in his shoe.”

Once we scoop up potential terrorists, where should we incarcerate them? Clarke is all for Gitmo and holding them separately from conventional criminals and claims that by mixing the two, “we are inadvertently creating a Petri dish of terrorism right here on American soil … Our prisons have become a terrorist recruiting network right under our noses.”

And how do we stop mass shootings? More guns in the right hands, he argues. Clarke believes that gun-free zones create target-rich environments, and this includes parks, courthouses and college campuses. “I advise business establishments to take those No Firearms signs out of their windows and off the front door,” he writes.

Clarke leaves behind a mixed reputation in Milwaukee. One of the city’s most relied-upon voices on criminal justice, Stan Stojkovic, dean of UW-Milwaukee’s Helen Bader School of Social Welfare, is also something of a Clarke antagonist and insists “the emperor,” meaning Clarke, “has no clothes.” About five years ago, Clarke sent Stojkovic “a treatise” calling for more cops and incarceration as a way to solve local problems, a “document that had ‘Confidential’ stamped on it about 50 times,” says the academic, who replied critically with a long email. Stojkovic heard nothing in return for about two years, when the sheriff sent him an angry letter by registered mail. “Only the most banal and really uneducated police buy into him,” the professor says. “Most people laugh at him.”

One of Clarke’s closest advisers is Republican consultant Craig Peterson, who paints a different picture of the sheriff, as thoughtful and well-read and not the cartoon character known to some people locally. “He throws some grenades,” Peterson says, “but he knows exactly what he’s doing.” Clarke became best known nationally as a critic of Black Lives Matter and pushed himself into the spotlight deliberately.

“He made a conscious decision that he was going to be the voice for cops around the country,” Peterson says.

Anyway, Clarke’s subordinates at DHS had better polish their reading glasses, as the sheriff was somewhat notorious in Milwaukee for assigning book reports to his officers.



Matt has written for Milwaukee Magazine since 2006, when he was a lowly intern. Since then, he’s held the posts of assistant news editor and, most recently, senior editor. He’s lived in South Carolina, Tennessee, Connecticut, Iowa, and Indiana but mostly in Wisconsin. He wants to do more fishing but has a hard time finding worms. For the magazine, Matt has written about city government, schools, religion, coffee roasters and Congress.