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What's the status of policing reforms in Kenosha, after the unrest of last summer?

Marti Mikkelson
Justin Blake, uncle of Jacob Blake, Jr. (carrying a flag and marching) on Nov. 1, surrounded by supporters outside the Kenosha County Courthouse during jury selection on the first day of the Kyle Rittenhouse trial in Kenosha Circuit Court. Rittenhouse faces seven charges including one count each of First Degree Intentional Homicide, First Degree Reckless Homicide, and Attempted First Degree Intentional Homicide. Rittenhouse, then 17, shot three people in August 2020, killing two of them, during the unrest that followed the shooting of Jacob Blake, Jr. by a Kenosha police officer.

Activists have been asking for the city of Kenosha to act on reforms ever since the city broke into unrest in August 2020, after the police shooting of Jacob Blake, Jr. Police had been called to an apartment complex for a domestic disturbance. As Blake was walking away from police and toward his car, Kenosha Police Officer Rusten Sheskey shot him in the back and side multiple times. Sheskey claimed Blake was reaching for a knife that was in the car.

The shooting was captured on camera and went viral, during a summer of already heated nationwide protests that followed the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. The shooting of Blake turned the spotlight on Wisconsin's fourth most populated city. So did the aftermath, in which Kyle Rittenhouse, a then-17-year-old, shot three people amid the unrest in Kenosha, killing two of them. Rittenhouse walked past police after the shootings and wasn't taken into custody until later.

After many years of delays on body cameras the city of Kenosha approved a plan for them after the police shooting of Jacob Blake, Jr.

>> Committee approves plan for $750,000 to purchase body and squad cameras for police

Kenosha officers started field testing body cameras in April 2021.

But activists had more demands. The city put together a Community Police Relations Core Team as part of a Kenosha Action Roadmap to Inclusion, Equality & Equity. A sub-team was assembled to “research, review and assess police policies and procedures locally, in the State of Wisconsin, and nationally, and if applicable, suggest considerations” to the city of Kenosha administration.

The sub-team issued a report in May 2021, but the city has not yet released the report publicly. WUWM obtained a copy. WUWM reached out to the Kenosha mayor, city administrator, the acting deputy chief of police, and Kenosha aldermen, asking for a response on the status of reforms and asking why the report hasn’t been released publicly. We informed them that WUWM would be publishing the report. We have not received a response on how the city has progressed on these topics. In addition, we reached out to activists and community members on the task force to further explain the situation and haven’t heard back.

Activists are hoping for momentum on the changes as renewed attention comes to Kenosha due to the Rittenhouse trial.

The report weighs in on four main areas:

1. Use of force policies on policing measures.

Deputy Chief Eric Larsen and the Kenosha Police Department have implemented seven of eight policies. The eight policies are: ban chokeholds and strangleholds, require de-escalation, require warning before shooting, require officers to exhaust all alternatives before shooting, duty to intervene, ban shooting at moving vehicles, require use-of-force continuum, require comprehensive reporting.

The report indicates that the city has begun to comprehensively report each time an officer unholsters a firearm. But the sub-team would like the department to ban chokeholds with no exceptions, as well as ban shooting at or from moving vehicles.

The report indicates that the Kenosha city attorney and a state review panel would have to approve these changes.

2. A CAHOOTS program in Kenosha

The report calls for a collaboration on this CAHOOTS program with the Kenosha Human Development Services (KHDS).

The original program has been in place in Eugene, Oregon for decades, and requires that 911 calls regarding mental health, addiction and homelessness are dealt with by mental health providers. This program diverts 5-8% of the 911 calls from police each year and saves Eugene around $14 million a year.

The report indicates that Deputy Chief Larsen has said Kenosha has an officer shortage and this program would partially alleviate the problem, while saving the city money and also creating an avenue for Kenosha's homeless people, those with mental illness, and those struggling with addiction to receive the help they need.

3. Violence prevention programs like Interrupters and Office of Neighborhood Safety (ONS) programs.

Deputy Chief Larsen has already spearheaded an Interrupters program in Kenosha, so the sub-team wanted to see how it could be further enhanced.

Interrupters is a program founded in Chicago, Illinois. It involves residents in neighborhoods most impacted by violence. Those residents reach out to individuals who are at high risk for violence. The program tracks incidents of violence and tries to stop violence, by using the help of citizens from those neighborhoods.

The sub-team also wants Kenosha to investigate a similar program modeled after Richmond, California’s Office of Neighborhood Safety. Richmond had one of the highest murder rates in the state, but the program drastically decreased the rate. The program is similar to Interrupters but has added resources for intensive case management. For instance, if someone is vulnerable because he or she has lost a job or housing and is at risk for committing violence, ONS works on employment opportunities or housing.

4. Body-worn camera policy

The sub-team wanted a mandate that police officers write their reports before viewing body-worn camera footage, and to make sure that body cameras turn on automatically. The report indicates that body cameras are sometimes not turned on by officers.

The report contains 10 demands:

#1 - a comprehensive reporting policy that documents each time an officer unholsters their service firearm while interacting with the public.

#2 -banning all chokeholds.

#3 - categorically banning shooting at and from moving vehicles.

#4 - strengthening the policy regarding police officer's duty to intervene.

#5 -That the Policy and Procedure Sub-team research how a CAHOOTS program could be implemented in Kenosha.

#6 - providing funding to fully implement an Interrupters program in Kenosha.

#7 - researching Office of Neighborhood Safety programs and how they could add to the work of the Interrupter program.

#8 - choosing a body-worn camera system that is highly automated, so police don’t accidentally leave cameras turned off.

#9 - mandating officers to submit their initial written or verbal report before viewing their own body-worn camera footage.

# 10 - That Kenosha Police Department seek out community involvement in crafting the body-worn camera policy.

Maayan Silver has been a reporter with WUWM’s News Team since 2018.
In 2021, Simone Cazares was WUWM's Eric Von Broadcast Fellow. She later became a WUWM reporter.
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