It took three days, an outpouring of anger in the streets and a NBA boycott before authorities investigating the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, started answering some of the most basic questions about what happened.
And still, many key pieces of information have yet to be released, fueling speculation over why a white officer shot Blake in the back at close range Sunday as the Black man leaned into his SUV.
‘Times Have Changed’
Police maintain they are not hiding information but can’t reveal other details while the case is under investigation. But the near-silence from the Kenosha department and state authorities is at odds with what an increasing number of American police forces are doing in the wake of high-profile shootings with the potential to cause unrest.
“The times have changed. What you may have done even a year ago doesn’t work now. We need to recognize the public outcry that is taking place and the need for information,” said Chris Burbank, a former police chief in Salt Lake City.
Even as new questions surfaced about the delayed arrest of a white teenager suspected in the shooting deaths of two protesters, police took no questions Thursday at a news conference where they focused on the response to the unrest.
Investigators haven’t explained why police drew guns on Blake and why the officer opened fire. They say a knife was found in the SUV, but they have said nothing about what role it may have played.
As for why officers came to the scene in the first place, the Wisconsin Department of Justice, which is investigating, said in a news release Wednesday that a woman had called about a boyfriend who wasn’t supposed to be there. But investigators haven’t said whether Blake was that boyfriend.
Police Under Scrutiny for Delayed Arrest
Blake survived but is paralyzed, and it would “take a miracle” for him to walk again, family attorney Ben Crump said Tuesday.
Crump has said Blake was trying to do the right thing by intervening in a domestic incident. And an onlooker who recorded the widely seen cellphone video of the shooting said that he saw a group of women shouting at one another on the sidewalk and soon afterward saw officers wrestling with Blake. Those accounts have not been confirmed by police.
Meanwhile, authorities have also come under scrutiny over why Kyle Rittenhouse, the 17-year-old police enthusiast suspected in the shooting deaths of two people during a night of protests in Kenosha on Tuesday, wasn’t arrested until the next day, in his home state of Illinois.
Witness accounts and video footage show police apparently let the gunman walk past them and leave the scene with a rifle over his shoulder and his hands in the air as members of the crowd were yelling for him to be arrested because he had shot people.
Kenosha County Sheriff David Beth explained that the scene was chaotic and stressful, with people shouting and running, and that may have caused “tunnel vision” among officers.
Kenosha Police Chief Daniel Miskinis said Wednesday that his department has few details about the Blake shooting because another agency — the Wisconsin Department of Justice — is investigating, as required by state law. It was state officials who on Wednesday released the information about the knife and identified the police officer for the first time.
“I can’t answer questions about the investigation. … I wasn’t there, I’m not privy to those reports,” Miskinis said, adding: “We’re not hiding behind a blue line of silence. It doesn’t exist.”
Many Departments Releasing Body Camera Footage More Quickly
Still, outside investigations are required elsewhere, too, and many departments nevertheless release narratives within hours of a police shooting, a reflection of how authorities are adapting to escalating public scrutiny.
When police speak to the public directly, especially early on, it can help calm the kind of unrest that Kenosha is seeing, said Burbank, who is now at the Center for Policing Equity, a think tank.
“By doing nothing, you are allowing the aftermath that more people are being injured,” he said. “This may be how they’ve always handled these, but you can’t do that now.”
Other departments are also more quickly releasing body camera and surveillance camera footage of police shootings, both to promote transparency and preempt rumors and unrest. Kenosha police do not have body cameras.
In Atlanta, for example, after the shooting of Rayshard Brooks at a fast-food drive-thru on a Friday night in June, police released body camera video, identified the officers and disciplined or fired them before the weekend was over. Charges were filed a few days later.
In the 2019 killing of Atatiana Jefferson, who was up late playing video games at home in Fort Worth, Texas, when an officer fired through her back window, police offered a detailed account of the shooting and partial body camera video the same day. The officer resigned and was charged with murder within two days.
This week in Minneapolis, police released surveillance video within 90 minutes of a confrontation with police that ended with the death of a Black homicide suspect. While the case sparked protests, the video showed that the man himself fired the fatal shot.
Police Contracts Can Affect How Much Information is Released
American law enforcement agencies vary widely on how much they release and how quickly, though. Other experts caution that airing too many details too soon can undermine a case.
If details are released before all the witnesses have been interviewed, for example, that can influence what the others say, said David Klinger, a criminologist and former police officer.
“We have to be very, very careful about protecting the integrity of the investigation,” said Klinger, a professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
Contracts with police unions can also affect how much information officers are required to give, and when. But even police unions sometimes favor more transparency.
After a shooting that left a Black man, Tony Robinson, dead in Madison, Wisconsin, five years ago, the Wisconsin Professional Police Association released information ahead of official investigations to counter rumors and speculation on social media, said executive director Jim Palmer.
Quickly releasing an initial account of a shooting, even if murky, can offer the public a basic framework of what happened — and it can also benefit the department by making its side of the story public, Burbank said.
The New York Police Department sends a top official to the scene of every shooting by an officer and holds a news conference within hours. While some praise the department for getting information out, critics say the practice allows police to manage public expectations and shift any blame away from officers.