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Society

Absent Details, Police Shooting Narratives Seek to Distract

September 1, 2020

CHICAGO — A familiar narrative emerged in the days that followed Jacob Blake's shooting by a police officer in Kenosha, Wisconsin, one seen many times after a Black man or woman is killed or grievously wounded by police: That somehow Blake's actions or his past can explain why an officer fired seven bullets into his back.

Despite shocking bystander video and impassioned pleas from community and family members, authorities have offered few details about the shooting or the white officer who carried it out, instead highlighting scant information about Blake without elaborating or explaining its relevance to the shooting.

So, the sexual assault charge levied against Blake in July in connection with domestic abuse allegations quickly became part of the story, though authorities have refused to discuss its bearing on the police use of force on Aug. 23. 

"This is what they do. They are trying to distract us from what we saw on the video," said Blake family attorney Ben Crump, who has represented the families of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and dozens of other victims of police brutality and vigilante violence. 

"They are trying to leave him with any kind of criminal history (so) it's OK not to care about his life," said Crump, who called it a "playbook" for when police maim or kill Black people. 

That's the message Blake's family has hammered home as the 29-year-old remains in the hospital, where doctors have told them he may never walk again.

"They shot my son seven times — seven times, like he didn't matter," Blake's father, Jacob Blake Sr., said. "But my son matters. He's a human being and he matters."

Relatives have called Blake a devoted father who was attempting to break up a domestic dispute, "trying to be a hero," as his cousin, Adria-Joi Watkins put it. The grandson of an Illinois minister who was active in the civil rights movement, Blake, his mother tearfully told reporters, would have been "very unpleased" by the eruption of unrest in Kenosha after the shooting.

In the absence of investigative details, police unions have been particularly aggressive in putting as much responsibility for violent confrontations as possible on those killed or injured by officers. 

In 2014, for example, a union spokesman rushed to the scene where a white Chicago officer fatally shot 17-year-old Laquan McDonald. He told reporters that, in the moments before the shooting, the teenager had lunged at the officer and his partner, leaving them "no choice at that point but to defend themselves."

It was not until a year later, when dash-cam video of the shooting was finally made public, that the city saw that the teen was in fact walking away from police when he was shot 16 times. The video became the centerpiece of the trial in which the officer was convicted of second-degree murder.

This year, after video showed the waning minutes of Floyd's life under the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer after he allegedly passed a counterfeit bill at a store, the police union president  complained about media coverage of the subsequent unrest and firing of the officers involved, falsely claiming that Floyd's "violent history" wasn't being reported.

While state and local authorities issued vague statements about the investigation of Blake's shooting and refused to address most questions seeking clarity, the police union in Kenosha issued a statement  combating what it called "the purely fictional depiction of events" from Blake's lawyers and others. Among the contentions were that Blake was holding a knife, had resisted arrest and even put one of the officers in a head lock — none of which authorities investigating the shooting have been willing to comment on.

And because arrests and civil court proceedings are a matter of public record, details about people wounded or killed by police officers that have nothing to do with the encounter in question — ranging from divorces to minor drug charges — also enter the narrative. In contrast, service records of police officers are guarded and often only made public after lengthy legal battles.

As a result, the information authorities have provided thus far about the officer who shot Blake begins and ends with this: His name is Rusten Sheskey and he's been with the Kenosha police department for seven years.

As for the shooting itself, authorities, citing the need to protect the integrity of the investigation, have raised far more questions than they've answered. 

In cellphone video recorded by a bystander, Blake is seen 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, an officer grabs his shirt from behind and opens fire. Three of Blake's children were in the vehicle. A shakier second bystander video taken from the other side shows officers appearing to try to grab Blake while he is on the ground before he stands up and walks toward the vehicle.

Blake's family has said that he initially went to the scene to break up a domestic dispute. 

Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul would not address that contention at his only news conference about the shooting, saying only that police were dispatched to the scene after a woman reported her boyfriend was "present and was not supposed to be on the premises." On police audio from the day of the shooting, a dispatcher can be heard telling officers a "complaintant says Jacob Blake isn't supposed to be there."

But Kaul refused to address whether Blake was indeed the boyfriend referred to in his statements or on what charge Blake was being arrested.

In discussing whether Blake was armed, Kaul said Blake admitted to police that "he had a knife in his possession." But Kaul did not say when Blake said that or whether Blake was holding the knife. Instead, he said a knife was found after the shooting on the driver's side floorboard of the SUV.

For Crump and others, the shooting and all that followed has again revealed the existence of two criminal justice systems: one for Black defendants and the other for white defendants. They point to video footage showing police vehicles driving past Kyle Rittenhouse in Kenosha as the white teen carried an assault rifle  moments after he allegedly fatally shot two protesters.

"Do you think armed vehicles and Jeeps are going to ride right past a Black man? " asked filmmaker Spike Lee during an interview on CNN last week.

To Crump, investigators' failure to release information is the first chapter in a story he's seen over and over.

"They are trying to cover for this officer, they don't want him held accountable," the attorney said.

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