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A sheriff who released a radio ad urging Milwaukee-area residents to learn to handle firearms so they can defend themselves while waiting for police said today that law enforcement cutbacks have changed the way police can respond to crime.
In the 30-second commercial, Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke Jr. says personal safety is no longer a spectator sport.
"I need you in the game," he says.
"With officers laid off and furloughed, simply calling 911 and waiting is no longer your best option," he adds. "You can beg for mercy from a violent criminal, hide under the bed, or you can fight back. ... Consider taking a certified safety course in handling a firearm so you can defend yourself until we get there."
The ad has generated sharp criticism from other area officials and anti-violence advocates. The president of the Milwaukee Deputy Sheriffs' Association, Roy Felber, said it sounds like a call to vigilantism.
"That doesn't sound too smart," Felber said. "People have the right to defend themselves, but they don't have the right to take the law into their own hands."
Under Wisconsin's "castle doctrine," someone who uses deadly force against an unlawful intruder to their home, business or vehicle is presumed to have acted reasonably. A spokeswoman for the state Department of Justice said that as of this week, there are about 155,000 concealed carry permits in Wisconsin.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Clarke said he just wants people to know what their options are. While self-defense isn't for everyone, some people see personal safety as their own responsibility, he said, and they should be trained properly.
"I'm not telling you to 'Hey, pick up a gun and blast away.' ... People need to know what they are doing if they chose that method — to defend themselves," he said.
But he also said he wanted to call on residents to be law enforcement "partners." He said he could either whine about budget cuts that forced him to lay off 48 deputies last year or he could get creative.
"People are responsible to play a role in their own safety, with the help of law enforcement," Clarke said. "I'm here to do my part, but we have fewer and fewer resources. We're not omnipresent, and we have to stop giving people that impression."
"After sitting down and thinking about this, I'm thinking 'Hey, I've got an untapped reserve over here, and it's the public,'" Clarke said.
Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett's office released a statement criticizing the ad: "Apparently Sheriff David Clarke is auditioning for the next Dirty Harry movie."
Barrett was beaten up several years ago by someone with a tire iron, and Clarke said he thought that would make the mayor "a lot more sensitive to people being able to defend themselves in such instances. A firearm and a plan of defense would have come in handy for him that day."
Jeri Bonavia, executive director of Wisconsin Anti-Violence Effort, said Clarke took a dangerous position with his ad. She pointed to the case of George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer in Florida who fatally shot an unarmed 17-year-old following an altercation. Zimmerman has pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder, claiming self-defense under Florida's "stand your ground" law.
"I feel like this is such an irresponsible thing for our chief public safety officer of a county to do," Bonavia said. "I think he owes this community an apology. And if he really believes that he's not capable of providing for our public safety he should get a different job."