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Wis. Law Requires Investigation Before Officer Can Be Charged In Shooting

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

It has been almost a month since Jacob Blake was shot by a police officer in Kenosha, Wis. As the community seeks answers, the officer has not yet been charged with a crime. Corrinne Hess with Wisconsin Public Radio reports on why.

CORRINNE HESS, BYLINE: Kenosha erupted in protest three weeks ago after Jacob Blake, a Black man, was shot in the back seven times by white police officer Rusten Sheskey. In many police departments across the country, a decision to charge the officer would've been made within days - but not in Wisconsin. That's due in part to a police shooting in Kenosha 16 years ago that led to a law making Wisconsin the first state to require an independent investigation in such cases. Wisconsin's attorney general, Josh Kaul, is heading that investigation. He says his office has already conducted more than 80 interviews since the August 23 shooting.

JOSH KAUL: Obviously, there was a lot of unrest in Kenosha in the immediate wake. But that doesn't mean that we're going to be conducting this investigation any differently.

HESS: According to state investigators, Kenosha Police were called to an apartment by a woman saying her boyfriend was violating a restraining order. Officers tried to arrest 29-year-old Blake and tased him twice. Blake was trying to get into his vehicle when Sheskey, holding onto his shirt, shot him in the back. Sheskey is a seven-year veteran of the Kenosha Police Department. And while his employment file hasn't been released, the one disciplinary action made public is a vehicle violation four years ago.

Blake's uncle, Justin Blake, says the family is pushing for Rusten Sheskey to be arrested and charged.

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JUSTIN BLAKE: We hope he'll be fired. We hope he'll be indicted. We just want it speeded up. We want it tomorrow. It doesn't take that long to look at the video and to do research - an investigation to find out what happened was wrong.

HESS: The reason the state is investigating and not the Kenosha Police Department is largely because of Michael Bell Sr. Sixteen years ago, his son was shot in the head by a Kenosha police officer in front of his mom and sister. Michael Bell Jr. pulled up to his house in Kenosha, and an officer followed him after observing his driving. Dashcam footage shows the two men talked and then struggled - and the officer shooting Bell pointblank in the head.

The officer said Bell took his gun. Within 48 hours, Kenosha police ruled the shooting justified. Michael Bell Sr. hired his own investigators who discovered considerable inconsistencies with the police account. The family later received a $1.75 million wrongful death settlement. Bell, a retired lieutenant colonel with the U.S. Air Force, lobbied state lawmakers to get a law passed that now requires outside agencies to investigate police shootings. He says at least eight states, including Georgia, California, New York and Illinois, have since passed similar laws.

MICHAEL BELL SR: You can understand that if you're in a police department with a hundred officers, there's a lot of camaraderie. If I run into an ex-Air Force person, I typically connect with them right away. And I know that it's very similar in law enforcement.

HESS: Meghan Stroshine teaches criminology at Marquette University. She says racial bias can seep into police training.

MEGHAN STROSHINE: Everyone's vouching for this guy. They're saying he was a good guy. I think that you can have those qualities and still have this horrible outcome.

HESS: Wisconsin's attorney general says when he investigates cases like this, he aims for a decision in 30 days. If that holds in this case, an announcement could be made as early as next week.

For NPR News, this is Corrinne Hess.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALFA MIST'S "MULAGO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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