* !

As a public service, I present the following to help residents of Milwaukee County answer a question that may have occurred to them: “Is Sheriff David A. Clarke Jr. a brittle, overly sensitive, vindictive asshole?” Citizens: you decide!

I’d previously commented on the billboards, mostly posted along freeways, which show people wanted for violent crimes in the area. Rather than just blabble here on my blog, I wrote to the Milwaukee County Supervisor for my district, asking why the apparent discrepancy between the demographics of criminals represented on those billboards and Department of Justice statistics. Here’s what I wrote to the County Supervisor:

I have noticed something puzzling about the Milwaukee County Sheriff Department billboards featuring various people wanted for violent crimes. And that something is, despite the fact that, nationally (according to Dept. of Justice statistics) about half of the people convicted of violent crimes are white, I have yet to see a single white person on those billboards. Everyone is African-American or Latino.
While Milwaukee County may have a higher percentage of non-whites than the nation as a whole (and therefore, if whites and non-whites commit crimes in the same ratios they do nationally, there’d be a greater percentage of non-white violent criminals in Milwaukee County than in the national statistics), I can’t believe that discrepancy is nearly 100%.
I also do not understand the purpose of these billboards. Does the Sheriff Department expect that these wanted men are just wandering around, shopping at the Pick n Save or selecting bathroom fixtures at Home Depot? How many people are captured via billboards in public places publicizing their wanted status?
However, it’s certainly true that anyone traveling Milwaukee County roadways who encounters these billboards is going to get the idea that the county is full of dangerous non-white men. Is this sort of prejudice the kind of thing we want to encourage?
I don’t think the billboards serve any positive purpose – particularly since the selection of wanted men they represent seems grossly skewed from a random sampling of those who commit or are suspected of having committed violent crimes – at least some of whom must be white. Yet those folks are never pictured. I wonder why.

(As it happens, I’d misread some of the statistics on that page, and in fact a little more than one-quarter of violent crimes are committed by white people.)

The supervisor forwarded my e-mail to Sheriff Clarke, who responded with the following letter to me:

I am familiar with the outdoor billboards featuring some of Milwaukee’s MOST WANTED. Had you taken time to look beyond the race of the individuals pictured, you would have noticed that the billboards you are talking about are put out by the Milwaukee Police Department, not the Milwaukee County Sheriffs Office. But since you brought up the issue, I’d like to share my thoughts on the billboards.

I am not speaking for Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn, and I would certainly encourage you to have him respond to your claim of racism, even though you do not support it with any empirical evidence. As a 30-year law enforcement veteran, I am familiar with how these “wanted” lists are put together and why. For the most part, they depict the most violent perpetrators because while they remain loose there is a high degree of probability that they will hurt or kill again. They have already demonstrated a propensity to engage in violent behavior.

If I can put your mind at ease though, I can assure you to a reasonable degree of certainty that those shown won’t be found hanging out in your neighborhood or menacing your family as they enjoy neighborhood life shopping at Home Depot or Pick and Save. They’re more likely to be found terrorizing some neighborhood in the central city or near south side, not on E. Bradley Avenue. Should you see one of them walking down your street though, maybe you could talk them into turning themselves in. By your thinking, maybe they just don’t know that they’re wanted.

I’m more than sure that people living in the depressed neighborhoods of Milwaukee, (the one’s [sic] who feel as if they are prisoners in their own homes because of fear), are happy that we’re not letting the fact that a disproportionate amount of violence is perpetrated by young black and Hispanic men, cause us to worry about being politically correct. This fact might make you queasy, but it’s the truth. I don’t have any reason to doubt your conviction statistic but that is not representative of what is occurring in Milwaukee; not by a long shot. But I can’t control your beliefs.

I don’t know what your race is and I don’t particularly care. As a black man, I find it embarrassing that too many young black men don’t make better lifestyle choices so that they don’t appear on a Most Wanted list. I, sir, deal with life the way it is, not as I wish it were. Young white males commit crimes, too, but the data does not support your claim that they do in the same numbers or exhibit the same violent characteristics as men from other demographics.

You certainly noticed the race of the suspects, but can you tell me anything else about them like the phone number people are asked to call? You certainly missed the agency that issued the alert. Trying to find suspects evading capture in an urban environment is like trying to find a needle in a haystack. Asking for the public’s help works. You seem to have a better way to find these miscreants…. Please tell me what it is. We don’t have all the answers and I’d like to give your way a try. I’m for whatever works in getting them off the street as quickly as possible.

Did it ever occur to you that the victims, the people on the receiving end of the violence perpetrated by these suspects, are disproportionately minority? Should we ask non-minority citizens to volunteer to be victims so that we have a nice even balance there as well? Putting a few white males on the list just for balance and as if their race doesn’t matter might sound like a neat social engineering experiment and make you feel better, but until young white males start committing acts of violence in the same numbers as their counterparts, you’re not as likely to see them on that list.

Well. That sure put me in my place. Who dares question the great and mighty Oz? (Certainly no one even remotely sensitive to public relations, that’s for sure – or this letter never would have gone out under Sheriff Department letterhead.)

Where to begin to reply to this?

Across the roadway from the “wanted” billboard nearest my house is another billboard actually put up by the Sheriff Department (I’m sure of this, because Sheriff Clarke’s name is on it). If I didn’t take time to write down the telephone number, or get the sponsoring agency right, perhaps it was because I was driving my car on the freeway and trying not to be overly distracted by billboards warning me of distractions or violent criminals.

Clarke says my “claim of racism” (which was more of a question about racism, or at most an implication of racism) is unsupported by “empirical evidence.” If by “empirical” Clarke means “quoted directly in my e-mail,” he’s right…but most people would include Department of Justice statistics (which I do mention) under the term “empirical evidence.”

Sheriff Clarke utterly misses the point I was making about people spotting criminals in local public places. I can’t make sense of his “point,” however, beyond the snideness of “maybe you could talk them into turning themselves in” and “maybe they don’t know that they’re wanted” (how that’s “by [my] thinking” I have no idea).

And then the Sheriff goes off on a rant about “political correctness” – along with the statement that he has no reason to doubt my conviction statistic – a statement he contradicts later in his letter by saying that “the data does not support [my] claim.” So does he know the statistics, or is he just making it up as he goes along? (And in fact, had he cited the statistic I initially misunderstood – which puts the non-white/white ratio closer to 75:25 than to 50:50, and then noted that Milwaukee County’s demographics probably triple non-white representation compared to national percentages, those facts would mean that if whites and non-whites in Milwaukee County commit violent crimes at the same rate as they do nationally, only 1 of 12 wanted criminals would be white…and it would be entirely possible that I’d miss that one. That is, in fact, the explanation – and despite the fact that it proves me wrong in my initial assumptions, I’m happier to be wrong than have the Milwaukee Police yet again be caught making racist assumptions. But such a reply would require a reasonable, well-informed, even-tempered person to write it.)

The weirdest thing about his letter, though, is its tone. He’s in ultra-peeved mode even though the billboards are not even his department’s responsibility, even though I never questioned the criminality of the men depicted nor the ability or right of law enforcement to capture wanted criminals.

If this is how he deals with citizens asking questions – citizens whom his department is supposed to serve, citizens who elected him to office (unfortunately) – what does this say about his ability not to blow up when difficult questions are asked him by those under his authority? What does it say about his higher political ambitions? Is this the kind of hotheaded blowhard that should be elected to any sort of higher office? It’s pretty clear Sheriff Clarke is the kind of man who interprets any questioning of his beliefs or actions as some sort of affront to his dignity. This county doesn’t need a vindictive autocrat who flies into a rage at the slightest questioning.

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