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High Noon for Sheriff David Clarke

Oct. 4, 2011
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When Sheriff David Clarke symbolically called him out in the street at high noon to settle their budget differences, Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele simply replied: "It's not a movie."

Abele really knows how to hurt a guy.

For years, Clarke has been perfecting his act as the tough-talking loner played by Clint Eastwood in those old Hang 'Em High spaghetti Westerns.

You get the idea Clarke spends a lot of time in front of the mirror each morning carefully coordinating a beat-up straw cowboy hat with his oversized belt buckle and highly polished boots. Of course, Eastwood was always the strong, silent type. The sheriff not so much.

Clarke immediately ran to right-wing radio to tell on Abele after the county executive cut $14 million from the sheriff's budget.

Clarke also released a scathing written attack on Abele that would have sounded a lot tougher if it hadn't echoed that familiar cry of children, "You're not the boss of me!"

"He does not run the office of the sheriff and I do not take orders or directives from a county executive," Clarke raged arrogantly.

It's true the sheriff is elected independently and Abele doesn't run Clarke's office.

But Abele and the County Board do control the county budget. And with enormous cuts in state aid inflicted on the county by its former executive, Republican Gov. Scott Walker, county employees and every other county department are facing deep cuts.

Sheriff Throws a Tantrum

But if Abele expects Clarke to quietly cooperate and willingly help the county close its $55 million budget gap, the county executive shouldn't hold his breath. That's pretty much a direct quote.

"He (Abele) may think that he can require me to submit reports," Clarke said, adding that he doesn't have to do that for anybody. "My advice to him is not to hold his breath, because he's not getting any reports."

Clarke was particularly incensed that Abele eliminated $814,000 for a mock boot camp program the sheriff calls DOTS (Discipline, Order, Training and Structure).

Around the country, most boot camp programs for inmates have been discontinued because they are expensive, affect very few inmates and do very little to reduce recidivism.

Corrections experts say drug and alcohol treatment, job training, anger management and training in life skills are proven by data to be far more effective.

In a particularly nasty retort, Clarke threatened to shut down those more effective programs to keep DOTS running if his budget is cut.

"The first thing that will be cut as a result of this insane budget decrease will be in the area of inmate programs. Inmate programs, except DOTS, will cease to exist," he said.

That would be a much greater threat if Clarke hadn't already shut down most education and jobs programs for inmates. The few worthwhile programs that remain are fully funded by outside sources.

Resorting to the demagoguery he uses against judges and other community leaders, Clarke called the county executive's reductions in his budget proof that Abele is soft on crime.

"He talked about shared goals?" Clarke sniped. "I don't share his goal to be soft on crime, coddle criminal inmates and excuse criminal behavior."

Unfortunately for Clarke, Abele is far smarter than the sheriff's usual fawners on right-wing talk radio. In his budget address to the County Board, Abele exposed the lie behind the sheriff's carefully crafted public image as a major crime fighter.

Abele said, both by statute and by practice, the sheriff plays only a very limited role in law enforcement.

Unlike other counties around the state, Milwaukee County has no unincorporated areas to patrol and every city, town and village has its own trained police department to enforce the law.

"In 2009, the sheriff reported only 12 crimes to the FBI, compared to 41,000 for the city of Milwaukee and 3,200 for West Allis, and even 242 for the UWM Police Department," Abele noted.

Abele also has made some very astute moves to please Clarke's conservative supporters, including cutting county spending for a major public arts project and even for community assets Abele supports personally, such as the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra.

Best of all, in the eyes of Clarke's biggest fans, Abele closed that $55 million county budget deficit without raising property taxes, just as he pledged in his campaign.

At the same time, Abele kept another campaign promise not to balance his budget on the backs of the county's poorest and most vulnerable the way Walker did. Abele protected county transit and expanded mental health services.

Does Clarke really expect his conservative supporters to join him in the street for a shootout with Abele to raise their taxes so that the sheriff's budget won't be cut?

The sheriff's about to find out what it really means to be a loner.


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