KENOSHA, Wis. — A year before his shooting of a Black man reignited nationwide racial justice protests, local police officer Rusten Sheskey gave a lighthearted interview to the Kenosha News about his life as a bicycle cop.
“It’s a huge responsibility, and I really like trying to help the people,” Sheskey said. “We may not be able to make a situation right, or better, but we can maybe make it a little easier for them to handle during that time.”
Sheskey is now on administrative leave pending an investigation by the Wisconsin Department of Justice into an encounter that left 29-year-old Jacob Blake partially paralyzed after Sheskey fired seven times into his back last weekend. What started the escalated police response is unclear, but a viral cellphone video shows Sheskey following Blake as he walks toward his vehicle and then firing after Blake opened the car door.
The incident set off a week of protests and unrest in the lakeside Wisconsin city, ultimately leading to the fatal shootings of two men, allegedly by a 17-year-old who traveled 20 miles from his home to join armed men claiming to protect businesses in the city from rioters.
Two other Kenosha police officers involved in the encounter with Blake — Vincent Arenas and Brittany Meronek — also have been placed on leave.
The Washington Post has requested copies of Sheskey’s disciplinary record, service history and any complaints or commendations received during his seven years with the Kenosha police department. A police spokesman said the requests were received, but it was unclear when those and other records requests would be fulfilled.
The Post also has requested similar information for Arenas and Meronek, along with police reports, 911 call recordings and other records related to the Sunday shooting.
When former neighbor Debbie DeShong heard Sheskey was the officer at the center of the case, she thought of the boy who joined her daughter on hands and knees in her suburban Wisconsin driveway, drawing together in bright-colored chalk as preteens.
She pored over every video of the incident she could find, trying to understand why her daughter’s best friend when they graduated from high school 13 years ago might be the lone officer to open fire into Blake’s back, as his young children watched. He must’ve been protecting someone, she reasoned.
“The person didn’t stop,” DeShong said of Blake. “When I see four officers pull their gun at the same time, I know something’s going on that people didn’t see. If there were kids in the car, any chance of that man hurting those kids, I could see him doing anything he could to protect those kids. He’s not going to let somebody hurt somebody.”
DeShong, who lives several doors down from Sheskey’s childhood home in nearby Waukesha, Wis., said Thursday that she believed Sheskey had already been convicted of being a violent racist in the court of public opinion and worries that legal consequences could soon follow for him. That description of the 31-year-old officer as racist couldn’t be further from the truth, said DeShong, who worked in the attendance office at Sheskey’s high school.
“He wanted to be a cop so he could serve,” DeShong said, adding that he worked part time as a lifeguard in high school. “I’ve known him his entire life, and it’s just not him to be a racist. It’s not his family. It’s just how they are. He’s not a cruel person, not at all.”
Asked whether she feared Sheskey would soon be arrested for his actions, DeShong began to cry and turned toward her home, waving her hands above her head as if to say, “Enough.”
Sheskey, a 2007 graduate of Waukesha North High School, was described by classmates as a slim, quiet student who didn’t participate in many extracurriculars and kept to himself. He was a part of the marching band for a time, but the now-retired marching band teacher had no memory of him. He was on the student council and was a member of the intramural bowling club, but two parent-coaches and two members of the team told The Washington Post they also had little memory of him.
“What I remember about him is that he didn’t have many friends,” said Val Schermer, a fellow 2007 graduate and band member.
One bowling teammate, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the matter candidly, described Sheskey as “the nicest, dweebiest guy you’ve ever met.”
The teammate said he didn’t recall much racial acrimony at their school. Waukesha North in 2007 was overwhelmingly White — the senior class of more than 250 students included no more than five African Americans.
Sheskey’s parents and his two brothers, one of whom is an elementary school principal, did not respond to The Post’s request for comment.
On the night of the incident, Kenosha police posted a squad car on Sheskey’s street, a quiet block full of one-story homes, some of which sport lawn signs reading, “Back the Badge,” a popular pro-police slogan in the region. Police officers remained posted down the block from Sheskey’s home around-the-clock through Saturday afternoon.
A neighbor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of retaliation from people who set fires in parts of the city earlier in the week, said she often exchanged pleasantries with Sheskey when the two were outside their homes over the years.
“I loved him being my neighbor,” she said tearfully. “The man went to work. He’s a good man. Do I know his inner thoughts? No. Do I think he’s a racist? No. Just a young man living his life, got caught up in a mess. … And two lives will never be the same, and it breaks my heart.”
Julie Tate and Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.