KENOSHA, Wis. - Eleven days before a White police officer ignited protests here by shooting a Black man seven times in the back, Porsche Bennett heard a commotion outside her house. In a neighboring backyard, she saw police taking a Black man to the ground. Out of instinct, Bennett said, she pulled out her phone.
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 BLAK, Black Lives Activists of Kenosha, 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.' "
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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 covid-19 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 has been the target of recent criticism over comments he made in 2018 that Black shoplifters should be "warehoused" and prevented from procreating. More recently, 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."
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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.
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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 the Gov. Tony Evers and Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, both Democrats, 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, a Democrat, 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."
WASHINGTON - In a year that has included impeachment, a global pandemic, economic turmoil and a reckoning on race, the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg crystallizes the choice in November as perhaps none of the other issues can.
Nothing quite captures the national disquiet over the future of the country as the passing of one of the most iconic and best-known jurists in history and the vacuum that her death has now created. If there was hope that the November election might result in an outcome that could begin to settle the country, the odds of that lengthened with the first reports on Friday night of her death after a long battle with cancer.
For those on the left, the passing of the revered justice is a potentially cataclysmic event, opening up the possibility that her seat on the court could be filled by someone who would cement a conservative majority for years. For those on the right, the vacancy to be filled presents the rarest of opportunities to fulfill a decades long drive to change the court for a generation or more.
The coming battle over Ginsburg's successor will have all the drama, procedural maneuvering and bare politics to match any of the most controversial of court nominations. But the impact of this particular vacancy could ripple far beyond what takes place on Capitol Hill. The issues that surround the vacancy encompass the broader culture war that divides red and blue America, from abortion to marriage equality to health care to the very structure of government.
Ginsburg's death changes the calculus for the campaign between President Donald Trump and former vice president Joe Biden. The court long has been a voting issue for some conservatives, particularly evangelical Christians and others who put opposition to abortion at the top of their issue list. Trump will be counting on the prospect of expanding a conservative majority on the Supreme Court to further energize that part of his base.
But the possibility of a conservative majority of long-standing on the high court is just as likely to have an impact on opponents of Trump. The history of the abortion debate suggests that when the right to an abortion is truly threatened, proponents of that right suddenly become hyperactive. Given Ginsburg's status and the role she played in empowering women and fighting for women's rights, her loss will add octane to the fuel on the left.
Depending on the outcome of the election and of the resolution of who fills the Ginsburg seat, the battle could easily expand to an even more charged debate over whether the high court speaks for and represents the views of a majority of Americans or even whether the democratic system of government more broadly has become undemocratic.
Twice in the past five elections, the popular vote winner has lost the presidential election. It could happen again in November, as Trump is likely to lose the popular vote as he did in 2016. Senate Republicans control the upper chamber, but their members represent fewer than half the nation's population. Republicans in the House have routinely won more seats than their share of the vote, thanks to the makeup of congressional districts.
This is not an issue that is suddenly upon the country. Two years ago, the Economist magazine ran a cover story with the headline, "American democracy's built-in bias," which highlighted the consequences of a nation with an expanding urban-rural split as wide as it is now in the United States layered on top of the constitutional system crafted upon compromise between big-state and small-state interests.
Noting that "a red vote counts more than a blue one" in America, the magazine's editorial argued, "This bias is a dangerous new twist in the tribalism and political dysfunction that is poisoning politics in Washington."
Former presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg said in August that if Trump were reelected a second time without winning the popular vote, it could force an examination "of what's become of our democratic system."
In recent years, ideas that have been put forth by those who believe it is time for such an examination. They include adding more justices to the high court (as Buttigieg recommended during his presidential campaign) and amending the Constitution to eliminate the electoral college and elect presidents by popular vote. More provocative have been suggestions that Democrats should push to bring the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico into the union to affect the balance of power in the Senate.
Up to now, this has been a discussion that animates many on the left, but it's not one that has gained a wider audience. Nor is it in the current capability of Democrats to effect such changes. But if Republicans exercise their power brazenly in an attempt to install a new justice in the face of a Biden victory in November, who can say where this fight could go?
Everyone is on high alert because of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. After the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in February 2016, McConnell denied even a Senate hearing, let alone a vote, on the nomination of Judge Merrick Garland, who was then-president Barack Obama's choice to fill the vacancy. McConnell insisted that there should be no vote on a successor until after the election.
On Friday night, McConnell issued a statement declaring that Trump's nominee would receive a vote on the floor of the Senate, a flagrant provocation that served to remind everyone of the stakes in the election, though one that holds the potential to backfire depending on which side is now more motivated to turn out to vote.
Biden was quick to protest, arguing that the winner of the presidential election in November should be the person to select a successor to Ginsburg. "This was the position that the Republican Senate took in 2016, when there were nearly nine months before the election," he added. "That is the position the United States Senate must take now, when the election is less than two months away."
Biden will be under pressure to go farther on other questions, particularly those relating to changing the structure of government. On Friday night, he did not say whether he was prepared to change his position and now support adding justices to the court, but that will not be the last time he gets the question between now and Nov. 3.
McConnell is not yet guaranteed that he can engineer a floor vote in behalf of a Trump nominee. Enough Republican senators are in competitive races to make them squirm at the prospect of such a raw display of power. A Biden victory or a Democratic takeover of the Senate, or both, would put many Republicans in a lame duck session in an even more difficult position if Trump and McConnell were insistent on moving ahead with a confirmation fight.
More events will have to unfold before it's clear who has the power to do what in the near term. But the timing of Ginsburg's death raises the stakes dramatically for the November election and potentially enlarges the battle over her successor to include fundamental questions of democratic governance and representation.
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