Maxine Bernstein, oregonlive.com
In the face of heated criticism, the Oregon School Resource Officers Association has voted to cancel next month’s appearance of David A. Clarke, a controversial former sheriff from Wisconsin who had been set to speak at its annual conference.
The association’s leaders announced the sudden reversal on the nonprofit group’s website Thursday night, less than 48 hours after The Oregonian/OregonLive wrote about the concerns of police reform advocates who were stunned that the group was giving such a public platform to a polarizing figure who has been an outspoken critic of the Black Lives Movement while defending the Proud Boys.
Clarke, who resigned as Milwaukee County sheriff in 2017, was under contract to speak for two hours about leadership and policing at the association’s annual conference, which is scheduled July 24-27 at the Mt. Hood Resort in Welches. The association supports police agencies that assign officers to school districts.
The association’s board announced Thursday night it had voted unanimously to drop Clarke as one of its speakers, noting his “politics have caused a number of Oregonians to reach out” in protest.
“If any presenter, in the eyes of some, is going to damage our credibility and/or ability to fulfill that mission, then we will make the necessary changes,” wrote Mike Jackson, association president, and Rick Puente, association vice president. Days earlier, both had defended the choice of Clarke as a guest speaker, saying they weren’t interested in his politics.
On Thursday night, they wrote that Clarke had been chosen to be one of the keynote speakers based partly on what they described as his “popularity with his constituents,” his “unabashed support for police officers around the United States,” and his support for police dealing with post traumatic stress. The association, they added, only cares about two things: safe schools and safe kids in Oregon.
Another speaker will take Clarke’s place and be named at a future date.
“Great victory!” wrote Kathy Selvaggio, a West Linn community activist, on the West Linn Community for Police Reform Facebook page Thursday night. “So grateful for those who spoke out about their concerns.”
Selvaggio has sought changes in the city’s police department after West Linn paid $600,000 in February 2020 to settle a wrongful arrest suit filed by Michael Fesser, a Black man and Portland resident.
Community activists from West Linn and Lake Oswego and a city councilor from West Linn were among those who urged their police chiefs and school districts in the last week not to send their school resource officers to the conference.
“Imagine how our Lake Oswego students will feel if they learn that Lake Oswego SROS (school resource officers), educators, and administrators are spending time learning from a man who is openly biased and who openly has disdain for some of them,” wrote Willie Poinsette, president of the community-based group Respond to Racism, in a letter to Lake Oswego’s city manager and school superintendent.
On the association’s Facebook page announcing the decision to exclude Clarke as a speaker, Pam Ashton commented, “Tough decision. I admire your commitment to children, above all else.”
Clarke has supported defunding schools to boost police ranks instead, mocked coronavirus safeguards such as mask mandates and amplified conspiracy theories about liberal philanthropist George Soros having his “fingerprints all over” the activism by student survivors of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida who have demanded new gun control laws.
Clarke, who is Black, has consistently referred to the Black Lives Matter demonstrations for civil rights and against police bias as “Black Lies Matter.” In recent weeks, he has defended the Proud Boys, calling the prosecution of some of the group’s leaders on sedition charges in the U.S. Capitol insurrection an “abuse of power.” He also criticized the U.S. Justice Department’s decision to investigate the police response to the Uvalde school shooter as improper.
During his tenure as sheriff, there were numerous reports of inmate abuse, staff harassment, and five deaths in the county jail. The county paid out $6.75 million to settle a civil suit filed by the family of one man who died in custody from dehydration after they said he was denied water for six straight days.