By Mark Guarino, Mark Berman and Kim Bellware
Jan. 5, 2021 at 6:46 p.m. CST
KENOSHA, Wis. — A Kenosha police officer will face no criminal charges for shooting Jacob Blake seven times in the back, an incident that touched off several days of intense protests against police and later unraveled into violent and deadly street clashes between demonstrators.
Kenosha County District Attorney Michael Graveley announced in a Tuesday news conference that his office would not seek charges against Rusten Sheskey, the 31-year-old Kenosha police officer who has been on administrative leave pending an investigation by the Wisconsin Department of Justice since the Aug. 23 shooting, which Blake survived.
Blake, who witnesses said had been trying to break up an argument between two women, was shot as he walked back toward his vehicle. In his written report, Graveley said Blake was armed with an open knife he was holding in his right hand. The report also says video footage showed Blake carrying a knife.
Investigators had previously not specified whether officers saw Blake holding a knife, saying days after the shooting that he admitted having one “in his possession.” They did not say at the time whether Blake was holding it or whether the officers involved saw it. Investigators said they found a knife on the driver’s side floor of the vehicle.
According to Graveley’s report Tuesday, Blake told investigators that he dropped the knife near the vehicle and picked it up intending to put it in the car, because it was a gift he wanted to keep. In the report, Blake is quoted as saying his knife was closed and questioning: “Why would I pull a knife on a cop . . . that’s just stupid.”
Blake’s uncle Tuesday disputed the account that he was brandishing the weapon, while an attorney for the family described the man as posing no threat.
Graveley said the decision not to seek charges was based on a review of more than 40 hours of squad video, and more than 200 reports totaling over 1,500 pages.
It’s the “most independent and charging decision that possibly could be done,” he said.
For many in Kenosha, the decision over whether to charge Sheskey, who is White, will be a referendum on whether officials in the segregated lakefront community can deliver the kind of justice and police accountability residents loudly called for after Blake’s shooting brought years of simmering tensions between police and community members to a boil. Blake is Black.
“It is going to weigh on this city and this state for years to come,” Justin Blake, the victim’s uncle, said ahead of the Tuesday announcement.
The Blake family had braced for an outcome similar to that of Breonna Taylor’s case, the 26-year-old emergency-room technician who was killed by Louisville police in March during a botched raid on her apartment. Prosecutors declined to bring charges against the officers, though the Louisville Police Department last week moved to fire two of the officers involved.
Graveley spent more than an hour discussing findings from investigators as he insisted the widely seen video of Blake’s shooting did not show the full story and detailed why the broad legal protections for police — and what he described as Blake’s weaknesses as a witness — would have made any charges against Sheskey unlikely to stick.
Graveley added that Blake’s encounter with police was prompted when a woman called 911 to report him, and would be viewed as a domestic abuse case based on the call and prior contacts between Blake and the woman, who was his girlfriend.
“This is a pattern of behavior police have been involved with many times that this is a domestic abuse scenario played out one more time unfortunately on August 23,” Graveley said.
Blake’s family disputed several of the characterizations Graveley made about Blake and the incident during Tuesday’s news conference, including the notion Blake was armed with a weapon in hand, meaning he could not have reasonably posed a threat to police.
“Jacob never posed harm to anyone,” said B. Ivory Lamar, the family attorney. Lamar called the district attorney’s claim that Blake had a knife a “completely bogus rationalization of what was really an intentional act to shoot him seven times in the back.”
Absent charges from local officials, Blake’s father, Jacob Blake Sr., previously told reporters the family would take their case to the federal level.
“This has to be federally heard, not just for my son, but for everyone who suffered police brutality. Everyone. We can’t sit around anymore. We can’t wait,” the elder Blake said.
The Justice Department said Tuesday that a federal civil rights investigation into Blake’s shooting is still ongoing.
Rittenhouse hearing escalates tension
Echoes of the unrest from last summer could be seen around Kenosha on Tuesday as the area braced for potential unrest surrounding the announcement: Plywood returned to storefront windows, National Guard vehicles rolled through the streets and concrete barriers blocked highway entrances into town.
The charging decision was not the only event fueling concerns over potential violence in town.
Hours before Graveley’s announcement, Kyle Rittenhouse, a northern Illinois teenager who fatally shot two people and wounded a third during protests following the Blake shooting, claimed self-defense as he pleaded not guilty to five felonies, including multiple homicide charges during a Tuesday afternoon hearing.
Rittenhouse, 18, is charged with first-degree reckless homicide, first-degree intentional homicide, attempted first-degree intentional homicide and two counts of first-degree recklessly endangering safety, all while using a deadly weapon. He is accused of fatally shooting demonstrators Joseph Rosenbaum, 36, and Anthony Huber, 26, and gravely wounding Gaige Grosskreutz, 22, on the second night of protests that followed Blake’s shooting.
Rittenhouse’s actions injected more chaos into Kenosha and at times even eclipsed Blake’s plight; they also added another layer of complexity and tension to the contrasts between the ways police and protesters were viewed by many of the White, largely suburban and rural residents of Kenosha and the Black and Latino community living closer to the city.
On Aug. 25, Rittenhouse was among a number of people who took up arms during the Blake protests claiming they were protecting local businesses from looters and vandals, though many of them, including Rittenhouse, were not locals.
Rittenhouse, then 17, traveled from nearby Antioch, Ill., with an AR-15-style rifle.
Despite being out past a curfew set by Kenosha officials and carrying a weapon he was too young to possess under Wisconsin law, police were seen in video apparently welcoming the presence of Rittenhouse and other armed people in the street.
“We appreciate you guys,” one officer tells the armed men in a live-stream video published online. “We really do.”
Rittenhouse has since been embraced as a folk hero on the far-right, with supporters raising his $2 million bond to free him in November and contributing money to support his legal fight.
Prosecutions of police remain low
Blake’s shooting drew an almost immediate reaction in Kenosha, particularly from Black residents who have long complained of racial profiling and unequal treatment from local police.
Police shot Blake, who witnesses said had been trying to break up an argument between two women, as he walked back toward his SUV, an officer trailing behind. Three of Blake’s sons watched from the vehicle as Sheskey fired toward Blake’s back at close range.
After the shooting, local officials provided only scant details on what led to the shooting, which was partially recorded in a video capturing an officer firing repeated shots into the 29-year-old’s back.
Sheskey’s attorney said the officer fired because he thought Blake was holding a knife and that he was attempting to kidnap a child — a narrative Blake’s father disputed.
“There’s no misunderstanding. [Sheskey] shot him seven times in this back. Unjustifiably. Nobody’s life was threatened. The only one’s life who was threatened that day was my son,” Blake said.
Blake’s case also was unusual among the high-profile instances of police violence from last year; unlike the case of Taylor’s fatal shooting by police in Louisville or George Floyd’s death in the custody of police in Minneapolis — the incident that sparked 2020’s reckoning over racial injustice and police brutality — Blake was seriously wounded but survived.
More often, the most high-profile cases involving police using force that fuels unrest involves fatal shootings by officers. Police officers are rarely charged with shooting and killing people while on duty, and convictions in such cases are even less frequent. Police shoot and kill about 1,000 people in America every year, according to a Washington Post database tracking such shootings.
In most instances where police fatally shoot someone, the victim is armed and the shootings are deemed justified, leading to no criminal charges. Since 2005, more than 100 officers have been charged with murder or manslaughter for shooting and killing someone while on duty, according to records kept by Philip Stinson, a criminologist at Bowling Green University who tracks these cases.
A Washington Post review of cases last year found that after a police shooting in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014, prosecutors began charging more officers. Conviction rates, however, remained largely unchanged from previous years.