Milwaukee County Sheriff David A. Clarke Jr. set off alarm bells Friday with a radio spot some view as a call for citizens to arm themselves.
In the radio ad, Clarke tells residents personal safety isn’t a spectator sport anymore, and that “I need you in the game.”
“With officers laid off and furloughed, simply calling 911 and waiting is no longer your best option,” Clarke intones.
“You could beg for mercy from a violent criminal, hide under the bed, or you can fight back.”
Clarke urges listeners to take a firearm safety course and handle 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?”
The spot aired at least once – during the last hour of the Mark Belling show on WISN-AM (1130) on Thursday. Clarke spokeswoman Fran McLaughlin posted it to the department website on Friday. She said she did not know where else or how often the spot would be broadcast, or how much the department spent to air it.
Clarke has served as lightning rod before, most recently when he called for schools to arm teachers after the Newtown, Conn., massacre of 20 children and six adults at an elementary school. News of the sheriff’s gun ad quickly generated feedback.
Jodie Tabak, Mayor Tom Barrett’s spokeswoman, released this statement:
“Apparently, Sheriff David Clarke is auditioning for the next Dirty Harry movie.”
“Dirty Harry” was one in a series of films in the 1970s and ’80s starring actor Clint Eastwood as Detective Harry Callahan of the San Francisco Police Department.
The Greenfield Police Department issued advice on its Facebook page, saying none of its officers was laid off or furloughed, that violent crime is down and the department’s response time to violent crime is less than two minutes.
“The decision to arm yourself with a firearm is a very personal and private decision that should not be driven by fear that our officers will not respond to your calls for help,” the department said.
Jeri Bonavia, executive director of Wisconsin Anti-Violence Effort, said she hears “over and over” from most law enforcement officials that the community should work to “take more guns off the streets, not add more.”
“What (Clarke’s) talking about is this amped up version of vigilantism,” Bonavia said. “I don’t know what his motivations are for doing this. But I do know what he’s calling for is dangerous and irresponsible and he should be out there saying this is a mistake.”
Asked about Clarke’s assessment of 911, James Fendry, director of the Wisconsin Pro Gun Movement, said, “It’s never been a great option (calling 911). Unless you can take care of yourself, you’re kind of SOL.”
Fendry, a former police officer, said that he tells citizens, “You’re not armed to be law enforcement. You’re armed to protect your own life and the lives of your family until law enforcement arrives. Do not go on search and destroy missions in your home.”
County Executive Chris Abele said Clarke is sending the wrong message.
“I think it’s irresponsible and it doesn’t help public safety to tell the public there’s some kind of imminent danger that they need to go buy guns,” Abele said. “Essentially, you’ve got a (public service announcement) that’s recommending people need to go buy guns because they can’t rely on the response they’ll get from 911. I’m here to tell you, we have phenomenal police departments.”
Roy Felber, president of the Milwaukee Deputy Sheriffs’ Association, said the ad sounded to him like a call to vigilantism.
“That doesn’t sound smart,” Felber said. “That’s why society has police officers.”
Instead of promoting vigilantism, Felber said, money should be found to hire more police officers and deputies.
County Supervisor Mark Borkowski, chairman of the County Board panel on public safety, said Clarke was “preaching to the choir” on gun ownership. Most people who want guns already have them, Borkowski said.
McLaughlin, Clarke’s spokeswoman, said the announcement does not encourage gun ownership.
“His message says to consider taking a certified course. His message says to fight back to protect yourself. People need to decide for themselves if they want to own a firearm,” she wrote in an email.
She said the Department of Homeland Security advises that in an active shooter environment, victims should run, hide, or, if those options don’t exist, they should fight – aggressively.
Clarke did not respond to an interview request.
Asked to comment on Clarke’s remarks, a spokeswoman for state Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen said that Van Hollen “believes strongly in both the 1st and 2nd amendments” to the Constitution on free speech and gun rights.
Mark Johnson of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.