David Clarke's Awful Book Explains Why He Should Be Nowhere Near Power

Much like the jail he ran, former sheriff David Clarke's new book is cruel and unusual punishment.


Riccardo Savi/Sipa USA/Newscom

I picked up the new book by former Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, "Cop Under Fire: Moving Beyond Hashtags of Race, Crime and Politics for a Better America," on the recommendation President Donald Trump.

Trump, noted man of letters, plugged Clarke's book last week in a tweet: "A great book by a great guy, highly recommended!"

Clarke, a conservative firebrand who frequently appears on Fox News, announced his immediate resignation Thursday as Milwaukee County Sheriff. In recent years, he has become something of a conservative celebrity for his denunciations of Barack Obama and police critics, but he's also been castigated in the press for a series of stomach-churning deaths and scandals at his jail.

His book, then, is Clarke's later-career image fluffer: a polemic against the lying media, Black Lives Matter activists, and liberal bleeding hearts who tried to thwart his law-and-order agenda.

Normally it would be a waste of energy to give serious consideration to Clarke's scribblings. One might as well review a YouTube comment section. However, the man has captured the notoriously limited attention of our president, and Politico reports that he is likely to take a position in the Trump administration in the near future, all of which makes his ideas, such as they are, noteworthy.

Author Nancy French—who has worked on autobiographies with such luminaries as actress Stacey Dash, Bristol Palin, and The Bachelor's Sean Lowe—generously stokes Clarke's literary ambitions here. But even with French's steady hand at the tiller, this isn't as much a book as a series of things Clarke is likely to shout out a window at any given moment.

Some sample chapter titles: "I'm Colorblind When It Comes to Crime and Punishment" and "Guess What? Prison is Supposed to be Unpleasant." There's also a passage on Clarke's opinions on the '90s sitcom "Murphy Brown" and a biblical exegesis on what Jesus would think of the Second Amendment.

This sort of clownishness hangs about the book at all times, much like the giant cowboy hats and fake medals Clarke adorns himself with. He insists on referring to Black Lives Matter as "Black LIES Matter" (emphasis in the original) in every single instance, and calls Obama the "cop-hater-in-chief." He spends at least a quarter of his book quoting and arguing against Black Lives Matter, a "subversive, anarchist, hateful movement" that "doesn't care any more about the lives of black people than the Ku Klux Klan does."

Like former Maricopa County sheriff Joe Arpaio, whom Trump pardoned in August, Clarke is an avatar of the sort of defiant authority that Trump perhaps imagines he projects. It's an attitude Kevin D. Williamson at National Review identified as the Glengarry Glenn Ross superfan club—would-be alpha males, brash and loud, unconcerned by attacks from the haters and losers, be they the lying press, litigious civil liberties groups, or activist federal judges.

Except of course, these alpha dogs have fragile little egos, which is why they lash out and abuse their power whenever challenged, such as when Clarke asked police to detain and question a man who had the temerity to criticize him on an airplane flight. (Not mentioned in the book.)

Clarke would have his loyal conservative fans believe that he, like Arpaio, is the victim of a political witch hunt for refusing to coddle criminals and standing up for police. His attempts, however, to whitewash his numerous abuses of power and his nauseating record as head of the Milwaukee County jail, must be addressed.

Take Clarke's description of a lawsuit filed against him in 2010 by Terrance Prude, an inmate:

"Why would an inmate sue you?" [Clarke's secretary] asked.

I glanced through the lawsuit. "Because he hated his food so much he claims … we violated the Eighth Amendment … which says prisoners should not be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment."

I stifled a laugh and added, "Well, I sure hope teenagers across America don't figure out they can sue over not liking what's put on their plates."

From this characterization, one might think that Prude sued because he didn't get a Jell-O cup with lunch, or that he didn't like his salisbury steak.

Prude actually alleged in his lawsuit that while he was housed in the Milwaukee jail, he was only fed spoiled "nutriloaf," a foul-tasting vegetable mush that has been the subject of nearly two dozen other inmate lawsuits across the country. The rancid loaf made him violently ill and resulted in rapid weight loss.

Federal appellate judge Richard Posner wrote in a Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals opinion reinstating Prude's lawsuit against Clarke after it had been dismissed by a lower court in 2012:

On his third stay, after two days on the nutriloaf diet, [Prude] began vomiting his meals and experiencing stomach pains and constipation. (He had vomited during the second stay as well.) He stopped eating nutriloaf and subsisted for the eight remaining days of his stay on bread and water (it's unclear how he obtained the bread). He had weighed 168 pounds before his second and third stays at the jail […] By the end of the third stay was down to 154 pounds…

A guard sent him to the infirmary after one of the vomiting incidents during his third stay, and the nurses there gave him antacids and a stool softener and one of them told him his weight loss was "alarming." Upon his return to state prison he continued experiencing painful defecation and bloody stools, and he was diagnosed with an anal fissure that the defendants have not denied had developed while he was in the county jail.

During his lawsuit, Prude had attempted to force the jail to release the recipe for the loaf, to determine its nutritional content, but the jail refused, even after a federal judge ordered it to do so.

"The defendants' response to his suit has been contumacious, and we are surprised that the district judge did not impose sanctions," Posner wrote. "The defendants ignored the plaintiff's discovery demands, ignored the judge's order that they comply with those demands, and continued their defiance even after the judge threatened to impose sanctions."

The judge kicked the case back to district court, but several days before the trial was set to begin in 2013, the insurer for the jail's food contractor reached a five-figure settlement with Prude.

After Clarke was removed as superintendent of the House of Correction in 2013—no mention of it in his book—the first thing his replacement did was get rid of the nutriloaf. (He also discontinued Clarke's ego-stroking requirement that guards salute officers.)

Clarke also doesn't address more dire lawsuits filed against him and his jail. He doesn't mention the notorious case of Terrill Thomas, who died of "profound dehydration" after a correctional officer cut off the water to his jail cell for a week. He doesn't mention the lawsuit filed by a woman who says she was sexually assaulted in Clarke's jail and forced to give birth while shackled to a bed. He doesn't mention the lawsuit by a woman who alleges she miscarried in her jail cell after guards ignored her going into labor.

"Brutality is defined as savage physical violence," Clarke then writes with an apparent straight face. "That might describe foreign terrorists or even Planned Parenthood harvesting baby parts to sell to the highest bidder, but not American policing."

Clarke does write about one successful lawsuit filed against him, however. Two deputies filed suit against Clarke after he repeatedly brought an evangelical Christian group to proselytize to staff during mandatory roll call meetings, even after several complaints. His takeaway from violating the establishment clause of the Constitution? "Unfortunately, we live in an era when some people will make even God the enemy."

Clarke's opinions on the current policing debate are a mostly predictable, ramshackle collection of statistics about the "Ferguson effect" from Heather Mac Donald, a Manhattan Institute scholar who argues that zealous oversight and criticism of police has led to a disastrous decline in criminal enforcement.

Things take a darker turn on the subject of national security. Clarke says the nation's current national security apparatus is nonsensical and prone to constitutional violations. Current security measures all Americans are subjected to at the airport by the TSA are a demeaning and useless charade.

But while his diagnosis verges on libertarian, his cure is pseudo-fascistic. Clarke recommends the creation of a new domestic spy agency "focused on protection, not prosecution," that would report directly to the president and wouldn't be burdened by the FBI's need to build cases. Suspected terrorists would be classified as enemy combatants, transferred to GITMO or similar camps, and tried by military tribunals.

"Like it or not, the enemy is at war with us and has come to our home soil," Clarke writes. "This isn't the time to plant rose bushes and go about our daily lives. It's time to assess, adjust our protocol, and stand up for American lives."

Cop Under Fire is long passages of twaddle interrupted by the displeasing realization the author had authority over other human beings. Trump's continuing fascination with unreflective, unrepentant authoritarians like Clarke and Arpaio, and his hearty endorsement of this septic tank of a book, is as good reason as any to make sure Clarke is never near a position of power again.