Jacob Blake, armed with a knife, put the officers trying to arrest him in an impossible situation.
On Tuesday, authorities in Wisconsin announced they would not be prosecuting Rusten Sheskey, the officer who shot and paralyzed Jacob Blake in August of last year — an incident that set off protests and riots in Kenosha, a city near the Illinois border. To justify this decision, they released two reports, one from the Kenosha County District Attorney’s Office and another from Noble Wray, a retired police chief and Obama-administration police reformer who’d been asked to render an independent assessment.
Some important details of the shooting remain unclear, largely because Kenosha police did not have body cameras at the time. The incident was captured only on bystanders’ cell phones, videos from which do not show the whole situation. But when it comes to the question of a criminal prosecution, the documents are highly compelling: There is no way to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Sheskey fired without justification. If anything, the evidence tips in the opposite direction.
Officer Sheskey and two other cops showed up in response to a call from Laquisha Booker, the mother of Blake’s kids. She said that Blake had taken the keys to her rental vehicle, and that he’d borrowed vehicles from her and crashed them in the past. She added that Blake was “not supposed to be here,” but that she’d let him visit for his son’s birthday. Police dispatchers told the officers that Blake had a felony arrest warrant for domestic-violence offenses and sexual assault, meaning they’d have to arrest him if they found him, under Kenosha Police Department policy.
When they arrived, according to the officers and another witness, Booker said that Blake was trying to take her car and her kids — and Blake was seen putting a child in a gray SUV. Sheskey has said he wasn’t sure if the child was Blake’s or not. In truth, there were three kids in the SUV, all Blake’s.
The cops tried to arrest Blake. He resisted. Two different officers shot him with Tasers, but he ripped out the probes. And to make matters worse, Blake produced a knife. Despite some claims in the media that Blake was “unarmed,” he admitted having the knife himself, there’s video of the officers telling him to drop it, and the weapon was found open in the SUV after the incident. According to the DA office’s report, Blake also resisted arrest with a knife in a 2010 incident.
And then came a fateful series of decisions. As seen in the widely disseminated cell-phone video, Blake walked around the SUV and opened the door. Sheskey followed and grabbed Blake’s shirt, then fired seven times. He says he stopped shooting when Blake dropped the knife, consistent with his training to shoot until the threat stops.
Were the shots justified? The key question is whether Sheskey reasonably believed lethal force was necessary to stop an imminent threat of “death or great bodily harm,” whether to him or to someone else.
Sheskey, another officer, and some witnesses say that Blake twisted his body toward Sheskey before the shots rang out, which would have moved the knife toward the officer. Per the district attorney’s office, “Officer Sheskey stated that for the first time Jacob Blake showed intent to harm [as opposed to just resisting arrest] by driving the knife towards Officer Sheskey’s torso.” Such an action would clearly justify deadly force.
However, this gesture is not obvious in the video, at least not to me. (You can see the recording on YouTube, and move frame-by-frame using the “<” and “>” buttons on your keyboard.) That said, I wouldn’t say the video disproves these claims, either — the more important question in court, where the burden is on the prosecution — because the SUV’s door and the cops’ bodies obscure some of Blake’s movements.
And at any rate, as Noble Wray’s report adds, whether
Blake drove the knife forward or not, a reasonable officer could view himself as being in imminent danger. P.O. Sheskey was literally holding on to Blake’s shirt, and Blake had a knife in his hand, actively resisting, attempting to get into the vehicle. This circumstance is only compounded with the kids being in the vehicle.
Of course, it was Sheskey’s own decision to grab Blake’s shirt, and there are various ways we might second-guess the officers’ actions even if we don’t prosecute them. But when it comes to those crucial final moments, the truth is that Blake put them in an impossible situation. They could have kept a safe distance from the guy with a sexual-assault warrant armed with a knife, but that would have meant letting that guy get into a vehicle they knew contained at least one child — an option that could lead to a high-speed chase or a hostage situation, both possibilities that Sheskey says he feared at the time. On the other hand, once Sheskey got close to a knife-wielding suspect, the chance he’d need to use deadly force shot way up, because knives are incredibly deadly at that range and there isn’t much time to ascertain and react to a suspect’s movements.
Or, as Wray put it:
Officer Sheskey had determined that it was dangerous for the public and the child in the car to let Blake go. P.O. Sheskey felt he could not retreat once he made the decision that harm could come to the kids or to the public. I found Officer Sheskey’s analysis was reasonable based on the limited information he had at the time. Officer Sheskey did not know the relationship between Blake and the child. I am not sure if it makes much difference. The U.S. Department of Justice reports in 2010 that 200,000 kids are abducted mostly by a family friend or parent. Blake’s severe resistance to being taken into custody would lead a reasonable officer to believe that he would engage in a high-speed pursuit.
I have no idea what actually would have happened if Sheskey hadn’t fired. I’m glad I didn’t have to make that decision myself. And I’m glad prosecutors aren’t dragging this situation out by pursuing a case they could never win.
By Robert VerBruggen , he is a policy writer for National Review.