Updated: January 05, 2021 05:27 PM
Created: January 05, 2021 03:26 PM
A Wisconsin prosecutor announced Tuesday that he will not file criminal charges against a white police officer who shot a Black man in the back in Kenosha last summer, leaving him paralyzed and setting off sometimes violent protests in the city.
Officer Rusten Sheskey’s shooting of Jacob Blake on Aug. 23, captured on bystander video, turned the nation’s spotlight on Wisconsin during a summer marked by protests over police brutality and racism. More than 250 people were arrested in the days that followed, including 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse, a self-styled medic with an assault rifle who is charged in the fatal shootings of two men and the wounding of a third.
Kenosha County District Attorney Michael Graveley said Tuesday that he had informed Blake of the news before holding a news conference to announce his decision.
The Blake shooting happened three months after George Floyd died while being restrained by police officers in Minneapolis, a death that was captured on bystander video and sparked outrage and protests that spread across the United States and beyond. The galvanized Black Lives Matter movement put a spotlight on inequitable policing and became a fault line in politics, with President Donald Trump criticizing protesters and aggressively pressing a law-and-order message that he sought to capitalize on in Wisconsin and other swing states.
Kenosha, a city of 100,000 on the Wisconsin-Illinois border about 60 miles north of Chicago, was braced for renewed protests ahead of the charges, with concrete barricades and metal fencing surrounded the Kenosha County Courthouse and plywood protecting many businesses. The Common Council on Monday night unanimously approved an emergency resolution giving the mayor the power to impose curfews, among other things, and Gov. Tony Evers activated 500 National Guard troops to assist.
Sheskey was among officers responding to a woman who had reported her boyfriend was not supposed to be around. Cellphone video shows Blake walking to the driver-side door of an SUV as officers follow him with guns drawn, shouting. As Blake opens the door and leans into the SUV, Sheskey grabs his shirt from behind and opens fire.
The Kenosha police union said Blake was armed with a knife, and Sheskey ordered him several times to drop it but he would not. Sheskey’s attorney, Brendan Matthews, said Sheskey fired because Blake started turning toward the officer while holding a knife.
State investigators had said only that officers saw a knife on the floor of the SUV and hadn’t said whether Blake threatened anyone with it. The officers were not equipped with body cameras.
Sheskey, 31, has been the subject of five internal investigations since he joined the Kenosha department in 2013, including three reprimands for crashing his squad car three times over three years. He has also earned 16 awards, letters or formal commendations, his personnel file shows.
The state Department of Justice investigated the shooting under a state law that requires outside agencies to investigate all officer-involved incidents. The department asked former Madison Police Chief Noble Wray, who is Black, to review its findings after Graveley asked for an outside expert to review the investigation.
Rittenhouse, who was among armed people who took to Kenosha streets during the violence and said he was there to help protect businesses, faces multiple charges including intentional homicide. Bystander video showed Rittenhouse shooting Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber and wounding a third man. Rittenhouse, who is white, has claimed the three men attacked him and he fired in self-defense. Conservatives across the country have been raising money for his legal team. Rittenhouse was 17 at the time of the shooting.
Rittenhouse pleaded not guilty to all charges at a hearing Tuesday.
Prosecutors dropped a sexual assault charge against Blake in November as part of deal in which he pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts of disorderly conduct. He was sentenced to two years’ probation.
Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers released the following statement Tuesday evening:
"Over the past year, our state and country have witnessed a movement—one that echoes hundreds of years of movements that have come before it, demanding justice, equity, and peace for Black lives. What is just as clear today as it has been is we have failed to deliver on these promises, both as a state and as a country.
"Jacob Blake’s life has forever been changed and his kids witnessed violence no kid should ever see, experienced trauma no kid should ever endure, all while the world watched. And yet, when presented the opportunity to rise to this moment and this movement and take action to provide meaningful, commonsense reform to enhance accountability and promote transparency in policing in our state, elected officials took no action.
"Today’s decision is further evidence that our work is not done—we must work each day in earnest toward a more just, more fair, and more equitable state and country, and to combat the racism experienced by Black Wisconsinites. I hope for peace and justice for Jacob, his family, and the entire Kenosha community. I reaffirm my commitment to action to build a more just, more equitable state for every Wisconsinite. And I ask those who will exercise their right to assemble tonight and in the days ahead to please do so peacefully and safely."
Editor's Note: This story has been corrected to reflect that Rittenhouse pleaded not guilty to all charges.
(Copyright 2021 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)