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Potential implicit bias overlooked in Kenosha Shooting investigation

Posted at 7:01 PM, Jan 08, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-08 20:01:14-05

KENOSHA — The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is calling for the Kenosha Police Officer who shot Jacob Blake to be fired, saying he can no longer be trusted to serve and protect.

A professor at the University of Wisconsin Law School says one thing Officer Rusten Sheskey did leading up to the interaction could support their claims.

“On one level, it’s understandable but on another, yes, it’s problematic,” Professor Keith Findley said.

In an interview with investigators, which was not recorded at Sheskey’s request, investigators asked about his thought process.

Sheskey said after he received the call from dispatch about possible family trouble, he was made aware of a warrant for Blake and his criminal record. Then, Sheskey started to mentally prepare.

He told investigators, the neighborhood he and his partner were heading to “is known for a lot of drug and gang violence.” He also said, “there was a home invasion across the street from [the location] which resulted in a shooting within the last month.”

Later, investigators say, “Due to heavy gang activity in that area, [Police Officer] Sheskey thought BLAKE would likely try to run from law enforcement.”

“Heavy gang and drug activity in a neighborhood is often code word for Black,” Findley said. “The image that’s conjured up is a dangerous Black person, probably in a lot of white officers’ minds. It attributes to the individual characteristics stereotypical of an area. That’s the nature of a bias. That’s indeed, problematic.”

Findley’s background qualifies him to make this judgment. He works with psychology and law with cognitive biases. He was the co-chair of the Madison Police Department Policy and Procedure Review Ad hoc committee. He is the co-chair of the Madison Police Department body-worn camera feasibility reviews committee. He served two years on the Madison Police and Fire Commission and was recently appointed to the Madison Civilian Oversight Court. In his words, his “fingers are all over-policing these days.”

He says Officer Sheskey’s belief that Jacob Blake had gang affiliations could have put the actions of that day in motion.

“It almost certainly led him to view this individual as more frightening and intimidating than if he encountered a white person in a suburban neighborhood who behaved exactly the same way,” Findley said. “Would he have shot that person? I can’t tell you. Would he have perceived the danger to be as high? Probably not, given what he has told us in that statement and the way that would influence anyone’s beliefs or action if they held those views.”

“Nothing from the investigation would indicate that,” Jim Palmer, Executive Director of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association said. “It’s pretty clear, the officers’ actions, Officer Sheskey and the other supporting officers, their actions were determined by the actions of Mr. Blake.”

Palmer supports implicit bias training; however, he says Officer Sheskey’s thoughts and words are not examples of implicit bias.

He calls Sheskey’s process an example of proper policing.

“I think officers ought to prepare for everything and prepare for any outcome and any action,” Palmer said. “Ultimately, this case again is a good example of that. Officers' actions are dictated by the actions of those whom they encounter.”

Sheskey told investigators when he saw Blake, he said, “Let’s talk about this” as Blake put a child in the vehicle. He says he noticed Blake looking to the north and south of him, something he says is indicative of someone looking for a place to run.

In contrast, Blake told investigators, when police arrived on scene, “I knew it was going to get ugly.”

In addition, at the end of District Attorney Michael Graveley's presentation, it says, "The US Supreme Court has held that "the calculus of reasonableness must embody allowance for the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second judgments --- in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving --- about the amount of force that is necessary in a particular situation."

Split-second judgments that Findley believes were made with bias.

“It strikes me as virtually inevitable that [Sheskey’s presumption] played a role,” Findley said. “To the extent, he was stereotyping about this individual, on the basis of the nature of his neighborhood, that could be problematic.”

Professor Findley also says it’s very likely Jacob Blake brought in his own bias to the situation with police. His statement on believing things would get “ugly” is proof of that. Ultimately, Blake was shot seven times by Sheskey.

Findley says of course everyone should try to put their biases aside but ultimately, he says the onus is on those who hold the power.

“There is a heightened responsibility that comes with the privilege of wearing a badge, carrying a gun and being authorized to use it against individuals,” Findley said. “Remember, the civilian is not the trained professional on the scene. The civilian is not the one initiating contact. The civilian is not the one making demands of the other.”

TMJ4 reached out to District Attorney Michael Graveley for comment on any oversight in the investigation related to Officer Sheskey’s potential implicit bias but said, “I’m not intending to follow up with any more comments.”

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