By Jeff Sherman Staff Writer Published Feb 25, 2003 at 5:40 AM

Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke isn't one of the Courthouse crowd good-ol' boys. He's a fresh face with a new sense of leadership and optimism. He's not afraid to talk, listen and make the tough decisions. He won the office in the general election in November, 2002.

Clarke is a Milwaukee native with more than 24 years of service in the Milwaukee Police Department. He was appointed by a Republican, ran as a Democrat but acts like much like an independent. Who is this "new" sheriff in our town who has quickly emerged as a strong leader and media figure? OMC sat down with him recently and here's our Milwaukee Talks with Sheriff David Clarke.

OMC: Give us the brief "David Clarke story"?

David Clarke: When I was appointed Sheriff (March 25, 2002), nobody seemed to know who I was. Not so much now, but when I was first appointed -- I have to chuckle -- people would come up to me and say 'welcome to Milwaukee, Sheriff.' Some were kinda shocked that I was a native. Reason being, I spent 24 years in the City of Milwaukee quietly going about my task of keeping people safe. I was the commanding officer and captain of the intelligence division within the Milwaukee Police Department (MPD).

I am a native of Milwaukee, was born here and have never left. I went to private grade school on the Northwest side, Marquette University High School and ultimately received my bachelor's degree in criminal justice management at Concordia University. My mom and dad still live here, I also have a sister here, a brother in New Mexico and two sisters in Illinois. I've been here my whole life; I really like the area.

OMC: What year did you graduate from high school?

DC: 1974.

OMC: Did you always have your sights set on law enforcement?

DC: No, I don't even know if I gave it a lot of thought as a kid. As a kid, all I ever wanted to be was be a kid. As I grew older, I think -- like most people -- I was unsure about a lot of things. When I graduated high school, I attended UWM for two years studying liberal arts and was thinking about political science … so maybe there was an inkling of law enforcement at that time.

OMC: You are the former police captain of the downtown area, right?

DC: I jumped at that opportunity, and had spent the eight years before the downtown appointment in the criminal investigation bureau. I was promoted as detective after 11 years in uniform patrol. Three years later I was promoted as lieutenant of detectives, thus beginning my supervisory career.

I was promoted to captain in '96 and remained in the criminal investigation bureau as the commanding officer of the crimes against property division. There I worked in the burglary investigations, then I was assigned to the robbery division, investigating armed robberies, and then I was assigned to the homicide division.

I really enjoyed that experience of working homicide investigations. Unfortunately in the City of Milwaukee homicides happen at an alarming rate, so we have our share. For those four years I was part of a unit that investigated 400 or 500 homicides. Tragically, in the homicide crew there is an obligation not only to the victim but also to the survivors, and that's the satisfaction that I got, if any can be found, that people were brought to justice for taking somebody's life.

OMC: What's the role of your department? How do you describe it and what does the public need to know your duties?

DC: It is going to evolve, but we are to perform a law enforcement function inside the county of Milwaukee -- regardless of the municipal boundaries. That's the authority and the jurisdiction of the sheriff.

The duties of the sheriff, as they are spelled out in the state statute, are in part that the sheriff shall perform a law enforcement function inside the county. This means arresting felons, keeping the peace, quieting disturbances and those things that we traditionally think are the responsibility of the municipal police force. The fact of the matter is they are also the responsibility of the sheriff. I think what happened is that (the sheriff's department) got away from that and settled into the more traditional roles of working the freeways, providing security in the courts and running the county jail across the street (from the County Courthouse).

I think we became content with our role as being just that. Coming from the Milwaukee Police Department and having the experience of policing in an urban society, we need to do more than that. We are going to reach our potential as a law enforcement agency, and that's what this is.

We are going to do this by assisting the municipal agencies and their effort to stop crime. I don't think many people need to be told that there are many instances of crime, and it doesn't just occur in the City of Milwaukee. You have more violent crime in the city, there is no doubt about that, and that gets obviously the most media play but the suburban areas have their problems with residential burglaries, business burglaries, auto thefts, vandalism and graffiti. Until those instances of those types of property crimes are at their lowest level, I am not satisfied.

Recently there was an article in the Journal Sentinel that noted crime increased for the first time in the last 10 years, it increased by 2.2% meaning that there is an increase in reported crimes. That tells me something. Crime is a lot like inflation and if you don't nip it in the bud early it's going to get away from you. I see that after a 10-year decline that we -- for the first time -- are seeing an increase, that's a sign to me that we need to do something about it now and not wait until we have double digits. Like inflation, we don't wait until there is double digit inflation, or we shouldn't, and that's what I am trying to do with this organization -- fill our role to assist municipalities and keep people safe.

OMC: You talk about Milwaukee being a safe city. What can people do to continue to make it a safe city?

DC: Overall, Milwaukee, the city or county, is a very safe place. We have pockets in this city that have their share of crime and violent crime, and it's disturbing to me that people can't live in relative peace and safety. On a nightly basis there are instances of shootings or guns shots that are all too common place in certain pockets of the city, but I think generally overall, and I've been to many cities, we are right up there in terms of relative safety in the metropolitan area.

You can't take your one geographical area that might have high instances of shootings and drug dealings and think that that's an indictment of the whole area. I have to look at it in terms of the Milwaukee metropolitan area as a whole and there is no doubt in my mind that we are one of the safest cities of this size in America.

Safety is a community's responsibility. Law enforcement has to begin to put the community out front. Law enforcement needs to facilitate the efforts to the community to keep their neighborhood safe. I think we have it twisted around right now were law enforcement is leading the way, law enforcement is supposed to come up with all of the solutions, all of the strategies, and it won't work that way.

We need to go out and identify community leaders, we need to coordinate the efforts of the business community, faith based communities and schools, neighborhood groups, and educational facilities. The answers really lie in the neighborhood; they don't lie in the police department as to what should be done and what can be done. We need to do a better job of listening to people. I think too often police officials, police administrators, police executives gather in a room and sit around throwing ideas back and fourth trying to come up with and implement strategies to reduce instances of crime. But if we don't have the input of the community and we don't have them out front -- it's not going to work. So citizens have to play a more prominent role in the safety of our neighborhoods.

OMC: Since becoming sheriff, what are the best and worst aspects of the job?

DC: Best aspect is that I am in a position now that I can and will have a positive impact on the lives of people. Being the head of the organization allows me to set a vision for the organization. I've been in law enforcement 25 years and I have a lot of knowledge, a lot of training, and a lot of experience in policing in an urban society. It's time for me to start giving some of that back so others in law enforcement can benefit from what I've been through. Having been in the trenches, taking that experience that I have gained in the classrooms and actually living it in the streets. I'm kind of a throw back and have that street cop attitude, so I can begin to give back and make a difference in the lives of people that work in this organization and the people that live in this community. I think that's the best part of it.

The worst part of it, if there's anything, is that there is not enough time in the day. There are a lot of demands on my time, and as a result I don't get to spend as must time as I would like to in certain areas of law enforcement, partaking in the things that are necessary to make this organization reach its potential. I get to sometimes just do 'sound bites' of things, which is okay, that's why I have a staff.

I should be involved in the day-to-day things, but there are things that I feel pass me by in terms of law enforcement that I would like to be in the mix of with my staff in terms of coming up with solutions.

If I could throw one more thing in there -- I don't get to spend as much time at home with my wife as I did before I became sheriff. But I belong to the community now, so she has to learn how to share me with them and she's real good-natured about that.

OMC: Now that you are in elected office, what has changed ... if anything?

DC: My life is no longer my own. The finality of the election and the margin of the win have settled things down quite a bit internally. The environment is more conducive for momentum and eventually forward progress.

OMC: You are suddenly a very public media figure. And naturally people peg you for another "higher" election office. Any aspirations?

DC: My focus right now is on setting this organization on a path for success centered around installing a culture of leadership. All of the other talk is flattering, however, I am committed to my task in front of me. I relish the opportunity to lead and regardless of rank, title or office, if another opportunity to lead presented itself, I'd be foolish to not at least consider it. I feel that I already have the best job there is.

Q: What do you do in your free time?

DC: What is free time?


OMC: Did you have a role model in your professional life or when you were growing up?

DC: My role model growing up was my father, he was very instrumental in my development. Through him I learned the importance of a father really being in a family. My father did a lot of things with me, kept me on the straight and narrow and imparted onto me the discipline that he had.

He was in the military at a very young age and went over and fought in Korea, he was an airborne ranger. So that discipline was passed on to me. It was beneficial because I wasn't in the military.

As far as in my law enforcement career, the one person who had the most profound impact on me is now Deputy Chief Les Barber of Milwaukee Police Department. Our careers met when I was promoted to detective of the criminal investigation bureau, he was also a detective. When I was assigned to the homicide division, he took me under his wing and he said, 'David if you want to learn how to be a detective I can teach you how,' and he did. He went out and imparted all the knowledge and expertise he had in criminal investigation and I'll tell you right now he is one of the best criminal investigators that exists. He probably -- law enforcement wise -- had the most impact on my street cop attitude.

OMC: What is the best thing that the Milwaukee area has to offer? And list two or three things that that could be better?

DC: The best thing about Milwaukee, I think, is the potential that this area has. At the same time if I could parallel that right away with the things I would like to see improved is the fact that we haven't unleashed that potential, we have to develop that potential as an area.

There is so much promise here. Some of the other positives about Milwaukee, there's a lot to do -- we have the big city feel along with the coziness of a tightened community. I find the people to be wonderful and having lived here 45 years, I really enjoy this area and I really like the four seasons, I really do. Winter gets to be a little long, after Christmas you'd like to see winter go away, or after the New Year, but I like the aspect of four seasons, my favorite being autumn.

I don't want to call it the worst, but some of the areas I'd like to see improved is the reduction or the suppression of crime in this area. I don't want you to get the impression that this is a crime-riddled area. But (safety) for me is (when) all areas in this community are where people can walk in the street at night in relative safety, with no fear in being able to do so. And when people can park their car in a shopping center parking lot and come out and still have it be there and not only have it still be there but without the windows being smashed and the car riffled through for any types of valuables.

I'm real passionate about keeping people safe and creating and maintaining an environment where people actually feel safe. Because a lot of what we deal with is the perception of crime. That's important and sometimes I think that gets ignored -- if people don't feel safe then they aren't safe.

OMC: Switching topics now. What is the last concert you saw?

DC: Milwaukee Symphony at, I believe I want to say Grant Park or Jackson Park. They have a series in the summer, concerts in the park. I saw them at Grant or Jackson Park the Milwaukee Symphony played that night. I am a classical music lover.

OMC: If you could have a drink or cup of coffee with one person today, who would it be and why?

DC: There are a number of people, but I would say General Colin Powell. I am fascinated by what he has achieved and experienced. Being Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a four-star general when he reached the pinnacle of his career in the military, and being one of the commanders of The Gulf War.

I have read his book. It starts with him growing up and going through life and facing many of the same things that ordinary people do. He didn't come from a lot of money but he had good upbringing, he had strong people in his life that took interest in him. What he has achieved and what he has become, I like his discipline, I like his demeanor, his calmness under difficult times because that is really what courage is, calmness under fire or having the intestinal fortitude to do or to make decisions that may not be very popular. But you know in your heart that they are the right things to do and subject yourself to the criticism and the attacks and some of the other things that will happen when somebody exhibits traits of leadership. I love his leadership ability.

OMC: How do you define leadership?

DC: Leadership is simply the ability to influence; to have a vision and to make people follow your vision, not make, but influence people to follow your vision. Some of the traits of leaders are having courage, foresight, intelligence, seeing things before others see, and being able to anticipate things before they happen. I think most importantly sticking to your convictions. If you know that in your heart that you are doing the right thing and not being dissuaded and not succumbing to reticule and criticism, that's what sets a leader apart I think. The ability and the will, by having the will to go out and lead.

OMC: What is success then for you?

DC: I think, for me, success is measured not in terms of what I have attained, not the position that I hold and not the materialistic things that I have been able to acquire, I think success to me is being satisfied with myself.

Being satisfied with who I am, being comfortable in my own skin. I've worked hard to get to where I am today, but that's not what made me successful. Going back to what I originally said is just satisfaction, looking back and saying "David you've done everything that you could do, you're doing everything that you can." But having people appreciate me, my wife and my family, to me that's what makes me successful, my faith in God, deep faith in God, it's things like that that make me feel successful.

OMC: One final question that we like to ask. What are two or three CDs that you could bring with you on a long trip?

DC: (He walks out to his truck and brings in the CD magazine) One of them is Jean-Luc Ponty, he's a jazz violinist, my favorite instrument, along with classical piano. Another one is Tim McGraw, A Place in the Sun. And Anton Vivaldi.

Jeff Sherman Staff Writer

A life-long and passionate community leader and Milwaukeean, Jeff Sherman is a co-founder of OnMilwaukee.

He grew up in Wauwatosa and graduated from Marquette University, as a Warrior. He holds an MBA from Cardinal Stritch University, and is the founding president of Young Professionals of Milwaukee (YPM)/Fuel Milwaukee.

Early in his career, Sherman was one of youngest members of the Greater Milwaukee Committee, and currently is involved in numerous civic and community groups - including board positions at The Wisconsin Center District, Wisconsin Club and Marcus Center for the Performing Arts.  He's honored to have been named to The Business Journal's "30 under 30" and Milwaukee Magazine's "35 under 35" lists.  

He owns a condo in Downtown and lives in greater Milwaukee with his wife Stephanie, his son, Jake, and daughter Pierce. He's a political, music, sports and news junkie and thinks, for what it's worth, that all new movies should be released in theaters, on demand, online and on DVD simultaneously.

He also thinks you should read OnMilwaukee each and every day.