KENOSHA, Wisconsin—The white police officer who shot Jacob Blake seven times in the back will not be charged for the August incident that paralyzed the Black man from the waist down and set off a wave of unrest over police brutality, the district attorney announced on Tuesday.
Officer Rusten Sheskey shot Blake in August 2020 as the 29-year-old tried to get into a van with his children. The harrowing incident was recorded by a bystander in a video that quickly went viral, sparking several nights of unrest in the Wisconsin city—and the deaths of two protesters.
According to an independent use-of-force expert who reviewed the case, the entire exchange between Kenosha officers and Blake took place within 65 seconds.
“No Kenosha law enforcement officer will be charged in any offense based on the facts and the laws,” Kenosha County District Attorney Michael Graveley announced during a lengthy presentation at the Brat Stop, a restaurant removed from the downtown area. “It is our decision that no charge shall be filed.”
Graveley went into detail about his charging decision at a two-hour press conference, saying it was made following a review of more than 40 hours of police squad video and over 200 reports. He added that his office was ultimately tasked with determining whether Sheskey had a reasonable belief that he was in danger of being harmed by Blake, or whether someone else in the area could be in imminent danger.
“Officer Sheskey felt he was about to be stabbed,” he said.
The district attorney said he spoke to Blake shortly before the press conference, adding that “this was tragedy first and foremost for Jacob Blake,” his family, and the Kenosha community.
After the decision came down, crowd of roughly two-dozen people gathered in the evening to march down 52nd Street, a major thoroughfare in Kenosha, and briefly blocked traffic. After the demonstration concluded, Justin Blake, the 29-year-old’s uncle, addressed reporters and said the family had spoken to his nephew about the DA’s decision: “We said the only thing we want him to focus on today is him getting better and getting healthy.”
Earlier Tuesday, Joe Cardinali, 24, who described himself as a lifelong Kenoshan, bemoaned the decision.
“Unsurprising as it is, it’s still a complete gut punch,” he told The Daily Beast, adding, “It will never make sense to me.”
Lynette Stinson, 20, said she marched at the peak of police protests last year. And while Black activists like her were on edge about the prospect of renewed right-wing hostility from outsiders in a city with recent history of vigilanteism, “it’s nothing compared to this summer.”
Instead of unrest, she was more focused on the impact another cop who shot a person of color facing no charges might have on her community.
“I look at my eight-year-old brother and I worry about him every day,” Stinson told The Daily Beast.
Ben Crump, an attorney representing the Blake family, lambasted the refusal to prosecute. “We are immensely disappointed and feel this decision failed not only Jacob and his family but the community that protested and demanded justice,” he said.
“This isn’t the news we hoped for, but our work is not done and hope is not lost,” Crump added. Blake’s family members, meanwhile, called for the officers to be fired.
While Sheskey and his colleagues who were at the scene the day of the shooting were all put on leave after the incident, the charging decision by the Kenosha County district attorney took considerable time. Ahead of the decision, Mayor John Antaramian and Police Chief Daniel Miskinis took precautionary measures like carving out a designated protest area, limiting bus routes, and closing roads.
The city also approved an emergency declaration and Wisconsin mobilized 500 National Guard troops ahead of the announcement. On Monday night, Blake’s father led a march through the city, demanding charges and calling on residents to “make noise.”
“Let’s be heard around the world. We’re not going to stop in Kenosha. We’re headed to D.C. We’re headed to Nancy Pelosi’s office. We’re headed to whoever is going to be in charge of the Senate,” Jacob Blake Sr. said at the march. “Because this has got to be federally heard, for not just my son, but for everybody who has suffered police brutality—everyone.”
Sheskey had worked for Kenosha’s troubled police department for seven years and had previously worked as a campus cop at his alma mater, the University of Wisconsin—Parkside.
In a 2018 interview with the Kenosha News, when he was part of the Kenosha P.D.’s bike unit, he spoke about why he liked being a cop.
“What I like most is that you’re dealing with people on perhaps the worst day of their lives and you can try and help them as much as you can and make that day a little bit better,” he said.
In the wake of the Aug. 23 shooting, the state’s Department of Justice said officers were initially called to a home after a woman said her boyfriend was there when he shouldn’t be. A dispatcher told officers that the woman said, “Jacob Blake isn’t supposed to be there and he took the complainant’s keys and is refusing to give them back.”
On Tuesday, Graveley played 911 calls that preceded the shooting, stating that officers were responding to a call for family trouble and were notified that Blake had a warrant out for his arrest. Graveley also said that Blake had a history of domestic abuse and that officers were aware of that prior to responding to the call. The woman who called 911 had previously called authorities about sexual assault complaints against Blake, the DA said.
Officers later said they were trying to take Blake into custody on an outstanding sexual assault warrant stemming from a prior domestic incident.
Before the shooting, Graveley said officers and a witness reported hearing Blake say, “I’m taking the kids and I’m taking the car.”
Both Sheskey and another officer, Vincent Arenas, at one point used a Taser on Blake to no effect. Noble Wray, the independent use of force expert who reviewed the case, concluded that Blake was struck by the Taser prongs—but pulled them off his body.
Then, as captured in footage filmed and shared widely on social media, Blake walked around his vehicle as officers trailed him with their guns drawn. He opened the driver’s side door before Sheskey grabbed the back of Blake’s shirt and shot him seven times in the back.
“There are many commands disobeyed... and there are multiple ways the officers try to bring him into custody,” Graveley said.
Blake had initially told officers he had a knife, according to a statement from the Wisconsin Department of Justice. A knife was later found on the driver’s side floorboard, and Graveley said that Blake had the weapon during the incident and “refused to drop it.” Wray concluded that Blake dropped the knife during the struggle, and that the 29-year-old put Sheskey in a headlock, before later picking it back up.
Graveley said that Blake was shot four times in the back and three times in the side because he twisted just before Sheskey unleashed his weapon. Wray's report also claimed that Sheskey fired so many shots at Blake because officers in the state of Wisconsin are “trained to shoot until the threat is stopped.”
The incident, which left Blake paralyzed from the waist down, set off a fresh burst of rage that had barely subsided since the May death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.
In downtown Kenosha in the days after the incident, buildings were burned and police deployed tear gas during volatile protests. Kyle Rittenhouse, a 17-year-old armed vigilante who ostensibly traveled to Wisconsin to protect businesses from looters, allegedly killed two protesters and wounded a third during the most violent night of unrest.
He has since been charged with first-degree intentional homicide, among other charges, and pleaded not guilty—also on Tuesday.
The man whose shooting brought the teenager to Kenosha in the first place has been a beacon of calm throughout his time in the national spotlight.
“There’s a lot more life to live. Your life, your legs, can be taken from you at any time,” Blake said from his hospital bed in September. “It hurts to breathe. It hurts to sleep. It hurts to move from side to side. It hurts to eat. Please, I’m telling you. Change your lives out there. We can stick together, make some money, and make everything easier for our people.”
A month later, Blake was released from the hospital and moved to a rehabilitation center where he reportedly received treatment until the end of November. The sexual assault charges against him were dropped.
Around 9 p.m. on Tuesday evening, about 50 protesters chanted “Hands up! Don’t Shoot” at throngs of cops and National Guard soldiers in front of the courthouse downtown.
The standoff did not escalate further. But they were not alone.
A few hours before the charging decision came down on Tuesday, the city had already attracted outsiders with a right-wing political agenda. Emily Cahill, 32, told The Daily Beast she had come from Plainfield, Illinois, “to support Kyle.”
“Self defense is not a crime,” she said, arguing the indicted teenager “was doing what any patriot should do.”
Shortly after the DA announced his decision, half a dozen people openly carried firearms near where the Blake family planned to issue their response.
When asked if he was carrying because of the threat of far-right vigilantes, one man who refused to give his name told The Daily Beast, “I’m carrying because I’m Black in America and I don’t have a choice.”