WASHINGTON ― The Justice Department is considering opening a federal civil rights investigation into the Milwaukee County Jail, a facility nominally run by high-profile Donald Trump supporter Sheriff David Clarke.
Four people ― including a newborn infant ― have died at the jail since April. One man with mental health problems literally died of thirst. But Clarke, who has spent much of his time this year promoting himself and Trump in conservative media outlets, has blamed pretty much everyone but himself for the conditions at the facility he is charged with running.
Earlier this month, U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wis.) asked the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division to open an investigation into the practices of the Milwaukee County Jail. Now DOJ is considering doing just that.
“We will carefully consider your letter along with other information we may receive regarding Milwaukee County Jail in order to determine whether a pattern or practice investigation may be necessary,” Assistant Attorney General Peter J. Kadzik wrote in a letter to Moore dated Dec. 15.
“Our decision to open a pattern or practice investigation is based on a number of factors, including the severity and frequency of alleged deprivation of rights; the effectiveness of any remedial actions taken by the jurisdiction to address deficiencies in policies, procedures or practices; the resources of the Special Litigation Section to investigate the allegations; and the need to address systemic deficiencies in other jurisdictions across the country,” the letter stated.
The “shocking number of deaths and the manner in which these individuals died underscore the need for accountability and transparency in our criminal justice system,” Eric Harris, Moore’s communications director, said in a statement.
“Unfortunately, Sheriff Clarke has made it clear that he has no intention in addressing the ambiguity surrounding these tragedies,” Harris said. “It seems the only thing Sheriff Clarke is concerned with right now is supporting President-elect Trump’s post-election victory lap. The families of those who died deserve answers as to how their loved ones lost their lives behind bars on Sheriff Clarke’s watch.”
DOJ’s letter comes shortly after reports that Clarke “threatened” and “verbally pummeled” the county’s chief medical examiner after he released information about deaths at the facility. Milwaukee County is now auditing medical care at the facility following a report from a court-appointed monitor that said better staffing might have saved lives.
“Questions certainly can be raised about the occurrence of these four recent deaths and the relationship to officer shortages ... as well as the health care staffing vacancies and the adequacy of oversight of staff,” the medical monitor said in a report.
The Milwaukee County Board has called for independent investigations into the jail deaths, though it cannot force the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office to agree.
If DOJ does open an investigation into the facility before the end of the Obama administration, it would certainly put the Trump administration in an awkward position. Clarke was under consideration for a Cabinet-level position, and met with the president-elect at Trump Tower a few weeks ago. Shutting down an investigation into the facility would look political, especially when the facility has come under court scrutiny in the past.
A statement issued by Clarke’s office to HuffPost Thursday called the potential investigation of the jail “fake news” and said it will not happen.
It was “clearly nothing more than a political assault on the Sheriff for supporting and playing a key role in helping Donald J. Trump becoming the 45th President of the United States,” the statement said.
“After January 20, 2017, Sen. Jeff Sessions will become the new Attorney General of the US Department of Justice,” it continued. “He will take the partisan politics out of decision making at DOJ. The Sheriff looks forward to working with the NEW administration in Making America Great Again!”
Clarke appeared on Fox News last night to talk about an online video he didn’t like. The potential investigation of his jail didn’t come up.
The Justice Department letter to Rep. Gwen Moore that discusses the consideration of an investigation follows: