The shooting last August sparked protests and rioting, making Kenosha a flash point in a summer of unrest that began with the killing of George Floyd.
KENOSHA, Wis. — The top prosecutor in Kenosha, Wis., declined to bring charges against the police officer who shot and gravely wounded Jacob Blake outside an apartment building in August, an episode that sparked protests and rioting and made the city an instant flash point in a summer of unrest that began with the killing of George Floyd.
The decision not to file charges against the officer, Rusten Sheskey, was announced on Tuesday afternoon by Michael Graveley, the Kenosha County district attorney. He said that investigators had reviewed 40 hours of video and hundreds of pages of police reports before making the decision.
The prosecutor said a case against the officer would have been very hard to prove, in part because it would be difficult to overcome an argument that the officer was protecting himself. He said Mr. Blake had admitted to holding a knife — even describing switching it from one hand to another as he moved to open a car door — and that statements from officers and other witnesses indicated that Mr. Blake had turned toward an officer with the knife immediately before he was shot.
The case involved a white officer shooting a Black man, circumstances which the prosecutor said made it especially difficult. “I feel in many ways completely inadequate for this moment,” said Mr. Graveley, who is white. “I have never in my life had a moment where I had to contend with explicit or implicit bias based on my race.”
Mr. Blake’s family expressed anguish at the decision not to charge the officer, saying that video from the scene made it clear that Officer Sheskey had acted inappropriately. “It’s a gut-wrenching experience,” Justin Blake, Mr. Blake’s uncle, said during a news conference in Kenosha after the decision was announced. “This is bigger, greater than little Jake. This is about all the little Jakes. That’s why the people keep coming out and supporting us. You know why? Because it could have been them.”
The case came during a year of protests over police shootings of Black people in cities across the country. It drew the attention of President Trump, who voiced support for a white teenager, Kyle Rittenhouse, who shot three protesters on the streets of Kenosha, two of them fatally, as part of an armed group that sought to confront protesters.
Even before revealing his decision to forgo charges against the officer, Mr. Graveley pleaded with the community — and the country — to keep the peace.
“Rather than burning things down, can moments of tragedy like this be an opportunity to build things?” he asked.
Mr. Graveley said that shortly before announcing his decision he spoke by phone to Mr. Blake, who was hospitalized for weeks after the shooting. Mr. Blake was partially paralyzed; his family said he would probably never walk again.
Advocates for Mr. Blake, who is 29, have been holding regular demonstrations in Kenosha, and had called upon Mr. Graveley to file charges against the officer.
“This decision does nothing but shore up that message that Black people are not safe in the United States of America in 2021,” Corey Prince, chair of the criminal justice committee of the N.A.A.C.P. in neighboring Racine, said Tuesday. “They continue to devalue Black lives, Black humanity, Black freedom, even when we’re with our kids.”
Dominique Pritchett, a community activist and mental wellness clinician in Kenosha, said the news was difficult to hear. “It’s re-traumatizing,” she said. “It regurgitates every unjustified Black death and shooting that has happened in history.”
B’Ivory LaMarr, a lawyer representing Mr. Blake’s family, said they would probably sue. “We will be looking at bringing a civil action in the near future to seek justice for Jacob,” he said.
Officer Sheskey’s lawyer, Brendan P. Matthews, said that the officers who responded to the call about Mr. Blake “did an outstanding job under challenging circumstances.”
“At the end of the day, Officer Sheskey was presented with a difficult and dangerous situation and he acted appropriately and in accordance with his training,” Mr. Matthews said in a statement. “The video remains difficult to view but that does not change what actually occurred.”
The Kenosha police union on Tuesday called the decision vindication for the officers. Officer Sheskey, who has been employed by the Kenosha Police Department for seven years, was placed on administrative leave after the shooting.
The case incited emotions in large part because of the gruesome scene captured by a cellphone video: A Black man being shot in the back multiple times as he moved away from the officer. Even those arguing that the officers acted appropriately conceded that law enforcement needed to figure out how to reach better outcomes in such situations.
Noble Wray, the former police chief of Madison, Wis., who analyzed the shooting for the district attorney’s office, said that he, too, was initially pained by the video. “I would totally concur with how this came across,” he said after a reporter from a German news outlet said that many Europeans saw the video as an example of police abuse. “I felt that way. But the flip side of that, is that it is not necessarily true that in a use-of-force situation, that it would only take one shot to stop a threat.”
Mr. Wray, who was Madison’s first Black police chief, also addressed the racial implications. “The criminal justice system is a difficult system,” he said. “It is hard, it is harsh, it is difficult. It has the history of racism on top of racism and we are trying to work through this.”
In a statement following Mr. Graveley’s announcement, Gov. Tony Evers said that the state and the country had failed to deliver on promises of justice, equity and peace for Black people. “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,” he said.
But he stopped short of criticizing the district attorney, instead blasting lawmakers for failing to provide “meaningful, common-sense reform to enhance accountability and promote transparency in policing in our state.”
The community simmered with tension before the announcement, as residents and officials anxiously sought to prevent the unrest that unfolded after the shooting last summer. On Tuesday evening, a crowd of a few dozen people marched through the streets, shouting through megaphones and bundled in heavy coats as the temperature dropped below freezing.
Many businesses in Kenosha were boarded up Tuesday in anticipation of the charging decision, and some streets were closed. National Guard members stood near the Kenosha County Courthouse, which was surrounded by an iron fence. At a Subway sandwich shop two blocks from the courthouse, fresh plywood was installed Tuesday, as it had been during the summer unrest. “If the decision goes in the cop’s favor, we’re thinking it’s going to turn how it was before,” an employee, Tyler Blazek, said.
The City Council unanimously passed an emergency declaration Monday that would allow the mayor to implement a curfew once the charging decision was made public. The sheriff for Kenosha County also declared a state of emergency that he said would allow him to change the schedules of his deputies.
The shooting, on Aug. 23, unfolded after three officers arrived at an apartment complex in Kenosha in response to a domestic complaint.
As the officers attempted to take Mr. Blake into custody, he walked along the passenger side of a four-door S.U.V., away from the officers, as three of his children waited in the back seat of the vehicle. The officers used a Taser in an effort to subdue Mr. Blake. Officer Sheskey then grabbed Mr. Blake’s shirt and fired his gun several times into Mr. Blake’s back.
Two other officers were pointing their guns at Mr. Blake during the incident.
For several days in August, protests and destruction erupted on the streets of Kenosha, as rioters burned buildings, cars and garbage trucks, smashed streetlamps and spray-painted graffiti on schools and businesses. Hundreds of National Guardsmen were summoned to the city in an attempt to restore order, using tear gas and rubber bullets to subdue protesters.
Two days after the shooting of Mr. Blake, Mr. Rittenhouse, who was then 17, shot and killed two men on a downtown street in what his lawyer has described as an act of self-defense. He was charged with six criminal counts, including first-degree intentional homicide.
On Tuesday, Mr. Rittenhouse, now 18, pleaded not guilty to the charges during a brief arraignment that was done via videoconference. His case is scheduled to proceed in March.
Outside the courthouse on Tuesday afternoon, two protesters said they were there to support Mr. Rittenhouse.
“Self -defense is not a crime,” said Tim Conrad, 34, who drove 90 minutes from Joliet, Ill., to be in Kenosha.
His friend, Emily Cahill, 32, from Plainfield, Ill., carried a poster that read “IGY6 Kyle” meaning “I got your back, Kyle,” she said.
The state Department of Justice and its Division of Criminal Investigation led the investigation into the shooting of Mr. Blake. The Justice Department has opened a separate civil rights investigation into the case.
At the time of the shooting, Mr. Blake was facing charges stemming from a July incident. On Nov. 6, prosecutors in Kenosha County Circuit Court dropped one count of third-degree sexual assault and agreed to drop one count of criminal trespass if Mr. Blake pleaded guilty to two counts of disorderly conduct, according to court records and Mr. Blake’s lawyer, Patrick Cafferty.
Mr. Blake pleaded guilty to the two disorderly conduct charges and was sentenced to two years of probation.
The Walworth County district attorney, Zeke Wiedenfeld, who had prosecuted the case, said the sexual assault charge had been dropped in part because the woman who had accused Mr. Blake declined to cooperate with the prosecutors. Mr. Blake had maintained that he did not commit sexual assault.
Robert Chiarito reported from Kenosha, Julie Bosman from Chicago and John Eligon from Kansas City, Mo. Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs contributed reporting from New York.