A lengthy inquest into the dehydration death of a Milwaukee inmate has raised troubling questions about how Sheriff David Clarke manages the county jail, just as the White House is said to be considering the tough-talking lawman for a job.
Seven jail staffers could face criminal charges after the Milwaukee County District Attorney's Office outlined a case for a jury that suggested disobedient inmates were routinely deprived of water as punishment and pleas for help were ignored.
Clarke wasn't among the seven staffers, including two supervisors, who the jury recommended should be charged because prosecutors say he wasn't directly involved in the events that led to the death last year of 38-year-old Terrill Thomas, who was deprived of water for seven days. But the death happened under the leadership of the brash cowboy hat-wearing sheriff, which his critics say is sufficient cause for his removal from office.
"I think there is a counterproductive and negative culture that has been established at that jail," said Supreme Moore Omokunde, a Milwaukee county supervisor who called on Clarke to resign in December. "The creation of that culture starts at the top with Sheriff Clarke."
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Wisconsin's Republican governor, Scott Walker, issued a less than wholehearted defense of Clarke last week, saying that although he could remove him from office, he'd leave it to voters to decide.
A spokesman said Clarke wouldn't comment for this story. The sheriff has said little about Thomas' death, other than to highlight what landed him in jail: Allegedly shooting a man in front of his parents' house and later firing a gun inside a casino.
Clarke said in a statement posted to the sheriff's office Facebook page Monday that he respects the legal process but would say nothing else. "There will be no speculation of what will happen until it happens," he said.
Although the jury recommended charges, it will be up to prosecutors to decide who gets charged and for what.
The unwanted attention comes as Clarke is reported to be in line for a position with the Department of Homeland Security. Politico, relying on unnamed sources who it said were familiar with President Donald Trump's administration's planning, reported Friday that Clarke was up for the job of assistant secretary in the Office of Partnership and Engagement, which coordinates outreach to state, local and tribal law enforcement.
The White House and DHS would not confirm or comment on the report.
Clarke has made himself a darling of the political right through his provocative social media presence, his staunch support for Trump's crackdown on illegal immigration and his support for patrolling of Muslim neighborhoods.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations and the Milwaukee-based immigrant-advocacy group Voces de la Frontera both were quick to decry Clarke's rumored appointment to a federal leadership post, describing him as a divisive figure.
But despite the investigation into his jail, Clarke remains popular with many conservatives, including some who have been trying to get him to run for U.S. Senate next year against Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin.
Bob Dohlan, a longtime Clarke supporter who publishes a conservative newsletter in Milwaukee, said jail staffers should be charged for Thomas' death if they neglected him, but that Clarke shouldn't be blamed for their actions.
"You can't watch them every minute of every night and day," he said.
Thomas' death was one of four at Clarke's jail in 2016, but the only one in which prosecutors are considering charges.
In 2014, about 80 percent of local jails nationwide reported no deaths, according to Bureau of Justice Statistics report. Jails that reported at least one death that year had an average of 363 inmates, according to the report, while jails with two or more deaths had an average of 1,683 inmates.
The Milwaukee County Jail holds an average of 950 inmates daily.
Prosecutors made a case for criminal charges in Thomas' death with testimony from jail staffers and their supervisors who said no one documented that his water was turned off. The supervisors acknowledged that turning off an inmate's water violates department policy, but jail logs showed they continued ordering water deprivation as discipline even after Thomas' death.
Several inmates testified that they repeatedly told guards that Thomas needed water.
"To deny a person water for seven days, by any definition is torture," said Martin Horn, the former commissioner of the New York City Department of Correction and the city's jail system.
Horn, who now teaches at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York, said Clarke should bear some of the responsibility for Thomas' death even if he wasn't directly involved.
"You know the saying the bucks stop here? At the end of the day, the head an organization is responsible for what happens in the organization," he said.