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The Worst Sheriff in America

Nov. 29, 2016
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Milwaukee County is now poised for national recognition as a result of the recent election but, understandably, no one is boasting about it.

It’s the unintended consequence of a local election more than 1,800 miles away, in Maricopa County, Ariz.

Voters in the Phoenix area finally had enough of their cruel, racist Sheriff Joe Arpaio. They threw him out of office after a quarter century by a wide margin.

In 2008, The New York Times awarded Arpaio the title “America’s Worst Sheriff,” describing him editorially as “a genuine public menace with a long and well-documented trail of inmate abuses, unjustified arrests, racial profiling [and] brutal and inept policing.”

So now the torch is passed. And no one is a more fitting successor to Arpaio than Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke to fill the opening for the worst sheriff in America.

In our current upended political world, that might even increase Clarke’s chances of receiving the Trump appointment he’s been groveling after for a year. Donald Trump only knows two African Americans and only one of them is a brain surgeon.

That also suggests why Clarke would be an even better choice than Arpaio in the role of justifying brazen racial profiling, inhumane treatment of prisoners and police who shoot first and ask questions later.

White racists like Arpaio are a dime a dozen. That’s why Clarke is so highly valued by right-wing media. As an African American, Clarke can say hateful things about blacks and no one can accuse his white supporters of racism. Their best friend is a black man who tells it like it is!

Deaths in Clarke’s Jail

Clarke takes a backseat to no one in fostering contempt for prisoners and producing deadly results. Since April, four deaths have occurred in Clarke’s County Jail.

The first involved an inmate who died of extreme dehydration after deputies shut off the water to his cell as punishment for his psychotic behavior. The man was confined for nine days while undergoing a psychiatric crisis and shouting incoherent nonsense, tearing apart food trays and stuffing toilet paper in his mouth. [See correction below.]

The County Medical Examiner ruled the death a homicide, meaning it resulted from actions or inactions of another. But so far no jail personnel have been charged with any crime.

The dehydration death mirrored one that took place under Clarke five years earlier, after deputies shut off drinking water to another inmate confined for five days while experiencing psychiatric problems.

The second death this summer was of a baby, who was born and died in an inmate’s cell over a period of six hours without any deputies noticing. The mentally ill mother was in a special needs unit requiring regular monitoring.

The woman said a deputy laughed at her when she told him around midnight she was going into labor. She gave birth about 4 a.m. to a baby she said “cried profusely,” but didn’t receive any medical attention until 6 a.m.

The sheriff’s office denied the woman informed deputies she was giving birth. It didn’t explain how she could give birth unassisted without anyone noticing.

The other two deaths involved inmates with drug histories. Inmates nearby said they heard both shouting for help.

The female inmate was hallucinating, screaming that the devil was choking her in her cell. She was found unresponsive the next morning. The male inmate shouted he couldn’t breathe and was the only one of the four fatalities who received immediate medical attention.

Needless to say, Clarke wasn’t present for any of the deaths or probably anywhere near Milwaukee County. He rarely is these days. Clarke receives more than $150,000 a year for speaking to mostly white, right-wing groups around the country, more than his $132,290 sheriff’s salary.

But Clarke’s contemptuous attitude toward those incarcerated in his jail fosters the same “culture of cruelty” that outside groups, including Amnesty International, documented in Arpaio’s life-threatening facilities.

That’s what leads deputies to punish the mentally ill by shutting off access to drinking water and any food other than a repulsive dog food-like mixture called Nutraloaf. Then they ignore the bothersome distress of inmates whose bodies are shutting down from dehydration.

It causes deputies to laugh cruelly at a woman who says she’s about to give birth because inmates are always making up wild, unbelievable stories to get attention.

The deputies themselves have their own problems from stressful working conditions. Clarke famously treats any staff who fail to fawn sufficiently like dirt, leading to expensive legal appeals of harsh employee discipline.

Psychologists have a term for this kind of behavior. It’s called “battered child syndrome,” in which victims of battering often become violent bullies themselves by abusing vulnerable people they can control, like jail inmates.

A community really needs to do something if it ends up with the worst sheriff in America. But the last thing that should ever happen would be for the worst sheriff in America to gain any national power over even more lives of vulnerable people.

Correction: This column should not have referred to employees in the County Jail as deputies. The jail staff are civilian Corrections Officers employed by Clarke. They are not deputy sheriffs.

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