Posted by Rojas @ 5:19 pm on January 28th 2013

When the cops give up

Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke is catching hell today for, in the words of one progressive critic, “calling for a return to the old west” in terms of personal self-defense. At issue are a series of statements in which Clarke appears to assert that the police in his jurisdiction are unable to defend citizens under certain circumstances, and suggesting that they take responsibility for their own protection through ownership of, and training in, the use of personal firearms:

In the ad released earlier this month, Clarke says: “I’m Sheriff David Clarke, and I want to talk to you about something personal…your safety. It’s no longer a spectator sport; I need you in the game, but are you ready? With officers laid-off and furloughed, simply calling 911 and waiting is no longer your best option.”

He continues: “You can beg for mercy from a violent criminal, hide under the bed, or you can fight back; but are you prepared? Consider taking a certified safety course in handling a firearm so you can defend yourself until we get there. You have a duty to protect yourself and your family. We’re partners now. Can I count on you?”

These comments are being broadly perceived as an abdication of Clarke’s professional responsibilities and, among some progressive observers, a call for outright vigilantism. Given this general reaction, I suppose it’s unsurprising that I find the remarks to be some of the most reasoned and intelligent that I’ve heard from a law enforcement official in some time.

For starters: the remarks are true, and given that they are true, they are something the public ought to know. They are particularly true in Clarke’s jurisdiction, where the police are dealing with a relative lack of financing and widespread layoffs while still having to maintain the same level of protection for a large population, including some particularly unpleasant inner city districts. But in fact, with regard to the specific situations that Clarke references, there is NO law enforcement system, regardless of resources, that can provide comprehensive protection. The general (and understandable) reaction of government to these circumstances is not to talk about them. They reveal that the government’s pledge under the social contract to protect us from physical harm is by no means comprehensive, and the alternative–to allow members of the public to retain the right to employ force in their own defense–makes the jobs of the police infinitely more difficult and undermines faith in law and government generally. When a policeman makes a statement like Clarke’s, he is drawing back the curtain and revealing something that men of his profession would much prefer to keep hidden. I respect that.

It is easy, of course, to react to Clarke’s comments by saying that his attitude is an unacceptable dereliction of duty and that the appropriate reaction is to call for more resources. Frankly, given the framing of his comments, I rather suspect that Clarke himself is attempting to make this argument, albeit indirectly: “Whoops, shame about those budget cuts, we can’t protect you anymore unless our funding is restored, what a pity, good luck everyone!” Even if this is true, though, this response misses the point: what should underserved populations do while waiting for the government to fulfill its obligations towards their security?

I often hear the argument made that there is no reasonable excuse for a citizen to own a firearm for their own defense. When I hear this argument made, it is usually being made by a reasonably well-off person in a jurisdiction with a reasonably responsive police force. For people in that position, it is probably true that the inherent risks of owning a firearm (accidents and the like) outweigh the very unlikely possibility that it will be necessary for defensive use. I don’t personally own a gun, for these and other reasons.

But I have a much harder time applying that logic to a person owning a home in a crime-ridden inner-city neighborhood, or to an openly gay man in certain parts of the Mountain West or Deep South, or to a Muslim anywhere in the United States. There are specific segments of the American population for whom the protection provided by local authorities is a sick joke, either because the authorities can’t protect them or because they’d just rather not. It is these people whom I think about first when I think about gun laws.

It really is rather extraordinary that we’ve reached the point that even police officers are calling on the public to assume responsibility for their own protection. In this case, it took a rather extraordinary officer to go public with the statements in question. Good for him.


  1. A similar situation, albeit framed a bit differently, happened out here, when Camden, New Jersey – crime ridden hell hole – laid off its entire police force.

    There were no explicit calls for citizens to arm themselves, but the outcry along the lines of the social contract being violated were similar. But, like this, what was frustrating was that residents had been warned for YEARS about the possibility, but as a politic refused to make any concession. The state, city, and county, kept making cases for cutbacks to schools, renegotiating public sector union contracts, and at every turn each thing was considered in a vacuum. “What are you talking about. Schools good – so cutting money means you hate schools!” Hell, they cut public radio money in New Jersey (successfully) and that was a drop-down drag-out fight.

    And after successfully cowing local government for years and ensuring they weren’t able to make any significant spending changes, Camden wound up with no police.

    And, of course, everybody went nuts, and more or less just assumed it was because the people in charge were assholes. Like the choice they had to make was not between police and healthcare/roads/education/guaranteed public sector contracts, but rather was between police versus no police. WHY WOULD YOU CHOOSE NO POLICE?!?! It was literally a conversation of:

    Camden: We cannot pay our police.
    Camden residents: Why would you not pay our police?!?!
    Camden: Because we don’t have money to pay them.
    Camden residents: Just pay them already!! What are you crazy?!
    Camden: Okay, but to pay them we have to close schools.
    Camden residents: Why would you close schools?!?!

    It’s infuriating. I really believe on national, state, and municipal levels, that the only way we’ll ever get meaningful spending reform is when we are FORCED to get realistic about all the things we ask (and are promised) of government. And that the only way that will ever happen is when it breaks down completely.

    Comment by Brad — 1/28/2013 @ 6:48 pm

  2. I don’t know anything about the situation in Milwaukee County, but it sure SOUNDS like a cynical play for funding and/or an ideological ax grinding session. I mean seriously: “I need you in the game, are you ready?” does not sound like a serious explanation of the problem and public risk.

    Comment by Jack — 1/29/2013 @ 8:51 pm

  3. OK, a touch of research, and Im totally calling bullshit on the Sheriff.
    – 2010 crime stats for his jurisdiction: 2 robberies and no murders. I can’t find 2011.
    – The Sherrifs post Sandy Hook editorial here:
    Short version: shame on liberals. Liberals are sheep. Liberals dont care about curbing violence. Liberals coddle criminals. I went to Israel, it felt safe.
    – No mention in his public service ad of any other ways to make yourself less likely to be a victim of violent crime.
    – And of course, no mention in any of his online statements about the added danger of having a gun in your house.

    This guy is just a complete tool. My guess, probably has higher political aspirations.

    Comment by Jack — 1/29/2013 @ 8:56 pm

  4. Where are you getting the crime stats? Again: Milwaukee County, WI. In other words, a good portion of Milwaukee, a city of close to a million people. Including, if I remember correctly from the couple of years I spent in Wisconsin, most of the ugly side of town.

    Comment by Rojas — 1/29/2013 @ 11:52 pm

  5. Correct me if I misunderstand, but most county Sherrifs do not have responsibility for the incorporated cities in their county. Milwaukee the city has its own police department. They do in fact have high crime anywhere from 2 to 5 times the national average and even worse than most urban areas. As I understand it, those areas are not this Sherrif’s, and yet he is telling everyone this nonsense about getting armed in his area cause he can’t promise to be there on time for the nearly nonexistant violent crime in the areas that he actually needs to respond to.etc etc. Clear play for funding, plus the rest of his online trail indicates a self identified Constitutional expert. I stand by my statements.

    Comment by Jack — 1/30/2013 @ 6:52 pm

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