The video she streamed to Facebook that night shows a Kenosha officer punching the handcuffed man twice in the ribs. Ordered to disperse while filming from about 15 feet away, Bennett yells: “We’re not moving until we know he’s safe!” An officer replies: “Do you want to get shot?”
Instead, Bennett was arrested — another indignity at the hands of an overwhelmingly White police force that has long drawn charges of targeting the city’s Black and Latino communities. As in other cities rocked by police shootings this summer, simmering tensions between local residents and law enforcement fueled the explosion of violence that followed the Aug. 23 incident that left Jacob Blake, a father of three, paralyzed from the waist down.
In dozens of interviews, Kenosha residents, community activists, former officials, and six current and former Kenosha police officers described a police culture bereft of diversity, tolerant of excessive force and determined to cover up for its own. Of more than 200 officers on the force, only eight are Black, police officials acknowledged, and a Black person has never risen to the ranks of police chief, assistant chief or police inspector.
Current and former officers described a systemic effort to discourage citizen complaints and protect officers from charges of racial profiling and excessive force. The department is populated with mostly good cops, they said, including Rusten Sheskey, the White officer who shot Blake. But they said police officials tolerate a subset of officers who lack the racial sensitivity and cultural knowledge to effectively police minority communities and allow their biases to play out in the street.
“It’s made very clear, that the good people, who are White, live over here,” said one officer who left the department within the last five years. “And the bad people, who are everyone else, live over here.”
Since her arrest on Aug. 12 for obstructing an officer and disorderly conduct, Bennett, 31, has emerged as a prominent activist against police brutality, co-founding Black Lives Activists of Kenosha (BLAK) in the hours after the Blake shooting. In meetings with state leaders, Bennett has detailed the community’s relationship with law enforcement and called for sweeping reform.
“This is what we deal with. This was the relationship,” Bennett said. “Nothing’s changed. This time they got caught.”
Kenosha police officials declined multiple requests for interviews. In a brief telephone exchange, Lt. Joseph Nosalik, the police spokesman, said he has never seen discriminatory behavior in the department.
Nosalik acknowledged that the department is significantly less diverse than Kenosha’s 100,000 residents, who are about 80 percent White and 11 percent Black. But he attributed the lack of diversity to “very strict . . . recruiting efforts.”
“We won’t just hire somebody because we tend to be light on Black officers or Latino officers,” Nosalik said. “We don’t sacrifice our hiring practices just to get people in here that are more reflective with the community.”
Once hired, Black officers may fail to rise to leadership roles for reasons other than racism, Nosalik suggested.
“There are people here who might be criticized for their job performance and they associate that with discrimination rather than being honest with themselves,” he said.
Denise Hertz-McGrath, a former Kenosha County prosecutor, said she was shocked by the violence that followed Blake’s shooting, noting that her office was damaged in unrest that “tore the town apart.”
But Hertz-McGrath — now a defense attorney representing Dakota Weldon, the man arrested for possession of a firearm, cocaine and marijuana on Bennett’s live feed (police alleged Weldon tossed the gun while they gave chase) — called police brutality “a very big problem in Kenosha.”
With the Blake shooting, “it was like [Kenosha Police] woke a sleeping bear,” said Hertz-McGrath, who is White. “I say to my Black clients, ‘Why do you live here? Why the hell do you live here? Go to Racine. Go to Milwaukee. Anywhere but here.’ ”
Three decades of harassment
Christopher “C.C.” Carter was 26 and fresh out of the Marine Corps when he joined the Kenosha Police Department in 1984. As the only African American officer in the county at the time, he said he was subject to racist aggression almost immediately, including being called the n-word to his face.
The detective who took him on his first ride around the city later approached him at a police union meeting, apparently intoxicated, he recalled. “What are you doing here, n-----?” the man said. “You’re supposed to come back with the rest of the n-----s to clean up.”
The man apologized — he was only joking, he said — but Carter said the incident led to a scuffle that ended with Carter punching the man out.
Thus began nearly three decades of harassment, Carter said: Supervisors dinged him for minor procedural transgressions and followed up with citizens, encouraging them to file complaints if they felt he had been rude in any way.
On the street, Carter said he saw some officers punching handcuffed and subdued suspects, using racial slurs and performing ‘Terry stops’ — police detainments requiring reasonable suspicion a person has committed a crime, rather than the more stringent standard of probable cause — in impoverished communities. At times, he said, Black and Latino “suspects” who had committed no crime were forced to take off their shoes and stand in the street, no matter the weather.
“It was a very toxic, racist environment because of the few,” Carter said. “You have a large majority of the officers who are good. Most of the officers are good. Then you have a few who are evil.”
Carter, who now lives in Texas and works as a respiratory therapist on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic, retired from the Kenosha police in 2011. But interviews with two current and four former officers suggest that little has changed. All six — speaking on the condition of anonymity to avoid retribution — described a department at odds with people of color, both inside and outside its ranks, with some officers routinely using racist language and excessive force.
“All officers didn’t racially profile. You have a lot of good White officers out there. But there are officers who are going to profile you based on your race, how you’re dressed, how your hair is kept,” said one recent retiree. Police leaders “never did anything to address that,” he said.
Said another former officer: “You have officers there who openly admit to pulling someone over because they’re Black and driving a nice car. And these are officers who train new officers.”
The department has managed to avoid documenting these transgressions by discouraging citizen complaints — or outright ignoring them, two former officers and one current officer said. Officers who receive complaint calls try to persuade people that they were in the wrong at some point in the encounter. And complaints called in by phone often do not get filed, the officers said.
“When citizens would come to me with a problem with other officers, I would tell them not to call, but to go to the station and put it in writing,” one of the former officers said. “Because if it’s not in writing, it didn’t happen. And get a copy of your statement so they can’t say they’ve lost it.”
Department officials declined to comment on Carter’s tenure or the citizen complaint process, and have not responded to multiple requests for records on complaints, disciplinary actions and traffic stops.
They also did not respond to multiple requests to interview Police Chief Daniel Miskinis. Miskinis suggested that three men shot during protests two days after the Blake shooting shared blame for the violence because they were out past curfew. Two of the men died, and the alleged shooter, Kyle Rittenhouse, 17, faces homicide charges.
Miskinis, who became chief in 2016, has served with the department since 1996. He recently announced plans to retire next year.
One current officer called Miskinis “fair” and “good.” But without more Black people in leadership positions, the officer said, the department is unlikely to change.
Miskinis “had an opportunity to change this place since he took over, and he hasn’t,” the officer said. “He’s not the right man for the job in front of us.”
A cloud that rains trouble
Depreas Jordan was 18 when a fight broke out at a house party after a high school basketball game in the winter of 2004. Police arrived almost immediately, Jordan said, and he and two cousins jumped into his Chevy Blazer to leave.
Before he could start the car, Jordan said Officer Pete Deates approached the driver’s side window and ordered him to roll it down. Reluctant to start the engine for fear the officer might interpret it as an attempt to flee, Jordan cracked open the door.
“It kind of nudged his leg, because he was standing so close,” Jordan recalled.
Deates ordered him out of the car, then grabbed him by the shirt, Jordan said. As he fell forward into Deates, the officer punched him in the face, Jordan said — prompting multiple officers to tackle Jordan and pin him to the ground.
In his report on the incident, Deates wrote that Jordan “threw the door open into me very forcefully” and “lunged out of the vehicle swinging his right arm.” Jordan was initially charged with battery of an officer, a felony.
During the legal proceedings, the court learned that Jordan had been employed since he was 15 and had just enrolled in a local technical college. Speaking on Jordan’s behalf were his pastor and a local alderman. Jordan recalls locking eyes with Deates and seeing something change in his expression.
“It was like, ‘We messed with the wrong one this time,’ ” Jordan said. “When I saw Deates, he didn’t have the confidence he had that night. All of them wished they weren’t there.”
Jordan ultimately pleaded guilty to resisting arrest and disorderly conduct, and served 45 days in jail with two years probation. He says he filed a complaint with the department, which went nowhere. The department did not respond to a request for documents pertaining to Jordan’s case.
Months later, a high school graduation party for his then-girlfriend and future wife, DaNecia, was interrupted by a police officer investigating a stolen bike. The officer knocked on the door, was greeted by the barking family dog, pulled his gun, and then trained it on DaNecia when she stepped between him and the animal.
The situation was quickly defused, but it left Jordan feeling as if the Kenosha police were a cloud over his head, occasionally raining down trouble.
“What people don’t realize is that this is close to being a sundown town,” DaNecia Jordan said, a reference to the many places where Black people were told not to be caught after sunset in the Jim Crow era.
Now 34 and a father of two, Jordan makes small-batch paints for a local paint supplier. He said he’s been pulled over “25-30 times” since he was 16 years old, often for what seem like made-up infractions. More than once, he said, he’s had to tell an officer “my exhaust can’t be too loud, sir, because it’s all factory parts.”
“When I see things like the Blake shooting, it brings up those emotions. I can say I’ve lost trust in police in Kenosha,” Jordan said. “They’ve been getting away with a lot that’s gone unseen here.”
Deates, now 48, is president of the Kenosha Professional Police Association, the police union. After Sheskey shot Blake, Deates issued a statement appealing for calm and counseling against a rush to judgment.
“We, along with the citizens of the great City of Kenosha, ask for peace and to let the process play out fairly and impartially,” Deates wrote. He declined to comment for this story.
'We're going to listen'
Since the Blake shooting, BLAK activists have been operating out of a boarded-up barber shop on 52nd Street, several blocks from the Civic Center, a gathering place for protesters. On a recent Thursday, they met with Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers (D), Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes (D) and other state officials.
“The police system is against minorities, against Black people,” Bennett said. “What is it that you can change right now to make a better future for me and my brothers, my sisters of minority descent?”
Through a cloth mask, Evers explained that policing is governed locally and therefore largely beyond his control.
“What we can do is what we did: create bills and legislation,” he said. “And we need to get support in the legislature, whether it’s around chokeholds, making sure use of force is the last option, making sure police departments share information about police officer records.”
But police reform bills recently introduced by Democrats and backed by Evers have gone nowhere in the Republican-dominated state legislature. “Those things, we’re working on,” Evers said. In the meantime, “as far as what happens with Kenosha police,” he said, “those are local issues.”
Kenosha Mayor John Antaramian (D) agreed that he and Miskinis bear the bulk of the responsibility for repairing relations with the Black community.
“There is an undercurrent here of people feeling ignored and not listened to,” Antaramian said. “Are there going to be reforms? Yes. We’ll look at what other places have done. We’re going to listen, make changes.”
Already, city officials have embraced the arrival of police body cameras, which had been stalled in part by concerns over the department’s budget, recording protocols and video storage methods. Because Kenosha police do not have body cameras, the Blake shooting would have gone unrecorded if a bystander hadn’t picked up a phone and started filming.
Despite that video, key questions remain about the shooting as this city braces for a decision about whether to prosecute Sheskey. Was Blake holding the knife officers later found in his car? If he wasn’t holding the knife, was he reaching for it?
Carter and other officers interviewed for this story say that, either way, the situation was badly handled. “One of you should have guarded the car, or kicked the door closed,” Carter said. “Bottom line: You are not getting in this car.”
Hertz-McGrath, the former prosecutor, declined to say whether she believes Sheskey should face criminal charges. But, she said, “How the hell do you shoot a guy seven times in the back while grabbing his shirt? It’s craziness. Why didn’t they just pull him to the ground?”
The Blake case is “a mess,” she said. “But that’s typical Kenosha.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly attributed to Daniel Miskinis 2018 comments suggesting black shoplifters should be “warehoused” and prevented from procreating. The comments were made by Kenosha County Sheriff David Beth.