This article has been updated.
Milwaukee Sheriff David Clarke emerged onto the national scene last year with his fervent support of Republican Donald Trump, despite the fact he was a Democrat. Clarke’s embrace of Trump’s politics — and of Trump’s intemperate rhetorical style — earned him a speaking slot at the Republican convention last year. It also overlapped with a great deal of scrutiny about his behavior as sheriff, including a number of deaths at jails under his jurisdiction.
Clarke’s political energy and background made him a deeply controversial figure, and the subject of a great deal of praise and criticism. Earlier this month, he became the target of a perhaps unexpected bit of critique, when a veteran took issue with Clarke’s appearance at the convention.
“Look at this f‑‑‑ing guy’s uniform,” Charles Clymer wrote on Twitter. “You see all that s‑‑t pinned all over his dress uniform jacket? That’s not supposed to be there.”
His objection was that the decorations on Clarke’s uniform project “authority” — but that they themselves are meaningless. “Colin Powell once described a dress uniform as a soldier’s résumé,” he wrote. “You can tell what they’ve done by their ribbons and badges.” More ribbons and medals mean a lengthier résumé, in other words — which wasn’t the case with Clarke’s regalia.
Clymer’s tweets kicked up a whole separate dust storm of criticism and defense of the sheriff. Snopes compiled various views of Clarke’s attire, including critics and defenders.
Clarke himself addressed the controversy in an interview on Newsmax TV.
They “have very significant emotional and real value to me,” Clarke explained, as transcribed by Snopes. “Some of these have been handed to [me] by people who have lost sons and daughters in the line of duty, or a spouse. So in support of like the C.O.P.S. — Concerns of Police Survivors — organization, I wear a ribbon for that. Some of these I have earned and some of these designate my completion of the FBI National Academy — they give you a pin. I wear that pin on my uniform.”
He continued: “I’ve also been given pins by survivors of the 9/11 terror attacks in New York City, from cops, from people who lost sons and daughters in those attacks, talking about from law enforcement. And those things mean something to me, you know I honor them. I put them on the thing that’s most important to me, and that’s the uniform.”
In light of that, we decided to try to figure out what all of the badges and indicia were that Clarke wore to the convention. We reached out to Clarke’s office, which at first declined to grant an interview. That changed — but we’ll get to that in a bit.
So here are the 22 things on Clarke’s uniform when he spoke at the convention in July, and, where possible, what the items represent. You’ll notice that, for Clarke, the pins are a mix of résumé and politics, precisely as he indicated.
The ones we know
1. Clarke’s four-star epaulets are standard for a chief of police or sheriff.
4. A U.S. flag lapel pin.
5. A “thin blue line” pin. The expression “thin blue line” is meant to evoke the role of police in society: a thin blue line of people willing to stand between us and them. This pin mirrors similar others that are popular in the United Kingdom.
6. This is a pin for the Israeli civil guard, a branch of the Israeli police that serves as a sort of neighborhood watch since terrorist attacks in the mid-1970s. (You can see a more clear version of it here.) At other times, Clarke has worn a badge for the Israeli traffic police. (Much thanks to Naomi Fry, Jacob Kornbluh and Noga Tarnopolsky for their help tracking down this badge.)
This was a particularly tricky badge to identify until we found this tweet in which it’s more clearly identifiable.
7. Clarke’s actual sheriff’s badge.
8. A 9/11 memorial pin, presumably of the sort Clarke mentioned in the interview above.
9. This appears to be a small lapel pin that says “WTC” (like this one), a reference to attacks at the World Trade Center. (Thanks to Ryan Shyffer for helping identify this.) Pins similar to this were given out to New York Police Department officers who helped in the aftermath of the attacks.
10. Almost certainly a badge for the General Mitchell International Airport division of the Milwaukee County Sheriffs Department. A source who wished to remain anonymous sent a photo of a similar badge, depicting a five-pointed star on a background of extended wings.
11. A pin from the National Rifle Association. Clarke has been a proponent of the organization for some time, including starring in an ad for the NRA.
12. A U.S. flag bar pin.
13. A small replica of a 19th-century U.S. Secret Service badge (like this one). (Steve Hager identified it as being a souvenir given out to those who help out with a presidential visit. Thanks to Johanna Farkas for finding the original.)
14. A 75th anniversary FBI National Academy pin. The academy provides professional training on intelligence, terrorism, management and forensic science. You can see a more clear version of this pin here. (Thanks to Kyle McAllister-Grum, who identified this.)
15. Clarke’s name tag.
16. A “thin blue line” ribbon from Concerns of Police Survivors, an organization for the family members of law enforcement officials killed in the line of duty.
17. An FBI National Executive Institute pin. The institute trains law enforcement executives in leadership.
18. A pin labeled “NSI,” perhaps for the Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting (SAR) Initiative of which Milwaukee is a part.
19. An FBI National Academy completion pin. Clarke’s relationship with the FBI over the years means that one can stumble across politically interesting photos like this one.
20. Pin for the CeaseFire crime reduction program of which he was once a liaison for the Milwaukee Police Department.
21. A pin depicting a baby’s feet (“the precious feet”), signifying support for the antiabortion movement.
22. Blue Knights law enforcement motorcycle club pin.
The ones we don’t
There were several pins that we were unable to identify, either because they were too small or too vague to pick out. We’ve looked at a number of other images to determine what they might be, without success. If you know the significance of one of these pins, let us know. (Of the six unidentified badges when this article was posted, only one remains unidentified.)
3. A five-pointed star inside a circle. Existing theories are that it is from the U.S. Marshals or Texas Rangers.
Again, we did reach out to Clarke to help explain the significance of these pins that are so important to him. Eventually, he offered a lengthy explanation of why he declined to do so, assuming that the intent of this article was to show that he was wearing fake military medals — one of the critiques that emerged, and the focus of the Snopes debunking.
Here’s what he wrote, in its entirety.
I am the subject of a lot of ridiculous narratives. This, I must say is the height of that ridiculousness. This smear is beneath me to say any more about, especially with a media outlet (Washington Post) that has proven time and time again with their biased coverage that they are always at the ready to be that propaganda machine for those pushing fake narratives — especially those that smear black conservatives.
A better story would be to ask the accusers what evidence they have that I wear military medals on my law enforcement uniform. There is none. Then you should ask why they accused me of this after you tell them what the pins attached represent and ask if they want to apologize for slandering me. You can use my radio interview you are referring to for an explanation.
Problem is, that is not the direction you are going in here regardless what you say your intentions are, nor what you are looking for, which should be the truth and then outing the slanderers. You’re looking for political theater to keep the subject line alive.
If I thought you were an objective observer in all this and simply looking to separate fact from fiction, I would talk to you about it. That would be naive on my part however.
I choose live radio and TV for interviews because it can’t be edited on the first run. That is not the case with print media that can contort, take out of context or cherry-pick my responses to fit the writer’s narrative.
If Sheriff Clarke decides, after seeing this article, to help identify the still-unidentified items above, we’re all ears.