Jacob Blake, the Black man left paralyzed after being shot in the back by a white police officer last August in Kenosha, Wis., has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit alleging the use of excessive force.
Kenosha Police Officer Rusten Sheskey is the sole defendant named in the lawsuit, which was filed on Thursday in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin. It says Blake suffered "catastrophic, permanent injuries'' as a direct result of Sheskey's actions, and seeks unspecified compensation for his injuries as well as punitive damages, attorney's fees and other relief.
Blake's legal team spans three law firms and includes high-profile civil rights attorney Ben Crump, who has worked with many families of Black victims of police violence and most recently helped the family of George Floyd reach a $27 million civil settlement with the city of Minneapolis.
"Nothing can undo this tragedy or take away the suffering endured by Jacob, his children, and the rest of the Blake family," Crump said. "But hopefully today is a significant step in achieving justice for them and holding Officer Sheskey answerable for his nearly deadly actions — actions that have deprived Jacob of his ability to walk."
In January, a Wisconsin prosecutor declined to bring criminal charges against Sheskey, and said no charges would be filed against Blake. Crump said at the time that "our work is not done and hope is not lost."
The Kenosha Police Department confirmed to NPR on Friday that Sheskey is still employed but on administrative leave, and declined to comment further.
The 19-page complaint — which does not list an attorney for Sheskey — recounts the events that unfolded on Aug. 23, culminating in Sheskey firing seven shots at point blank range as Blake walked away from him and towards the driver's side of a parked vehicle where two of his young children were sitting.
Six of those rounds entered Blake's body, with at least one severing his spinal cord and "instantly rendering his fully seated body limp upon impact," according to the complaint.
Blake, a father of three who worked as an armed security guard, had been leaving a gathering for his son's eighth birthday following a verbal dispute between two women when Sheskey and other officers were dispatched to the area for what was initially deemed "family trouble." They approached Blake as he was putting one of his sons in the backseat of a Dodge SUV.
Wisconsin Public Radio reports that the officers were trying to arrest Blake for an outstanding sexual assault warrant, and that the state dropped those charges against him in November.
The complaint details how, without announcing any intention of arresting him, Sheskey grabbed Blake by the wrist and began applying physical force to his arm, causing him to tense up. A number of officers then placed him in a headlock, punched and choked him and shocked him three times with a taser. Blake had dropped a folding utility knife on the ground during the scuffle, and picked it up and started walking towards his vehicle as officers followed him with their guns drawn.
As Blake opened the driver's side door, threw the knife onto the floor and started to sit down, the complaint states, Sheskey pulled him backwards by his t-shirt with one hand and fired his semi-automatic pistol with the other.
Blake's lawyers said repeatedly that he made no physical or verbal threats towards any officer and attempted to disengage by walking away from them. They also noted that at the time Sheskey began firing, several women and a toddler were standing in the vicinity, and Blake's two children were sitting just feet away in the backseat.
"Miraculously, no bystanders were hit by gunfire," B'Ivory LaMarr, one of Blake's attorneys, said in a statement. "Although Jacob's children escaped physical injury and avoided being hit by the stray bullet that fired into the SUV, they were forced to witness their father being gunned down only feet away from where they sat."
The complaint also includes several stills from eyewitness video, showing the positions of Blake and Sheskey at the moment each shot was fired. Blake's lawyers said the images prove that "the hail of gunfire fired into the back of Mr. Blake in the presence of his children was excessive and unnecessary for which there must be accountability in a court of law."
Another of Blake's attorneys, Patrick Salvi II, called his injuries "permanent and life-changing," adding that he now suffers from an "intractable pain syndrome."
"After various surgical procedures and an agonizing course of physical rehabilitation, Jacob remains unable to return to his job as a security guard and relies on others to assist him with the basic needs of daily living," Salvi said.
Blake has made few public appearances since the shooting. In September, he recorded a video from his hospital bed describing the pain of his recovery and his hopes for the future.
"To all the young cats out there and even the older ones, older than me, there's a lot more life to live out here, man. Your life, and not only just your life, your legs — something that you need to move around and move forward in life — can be taken from you like this," Blake said, snapping his fingers.
Video of the shooting circulated widely and prompted days of protests in Kenosha. It was during this period of unrest that Illinois teenager Kyle Rittenhouse was captured on video shooting three protesters, two of them fatally. Rittenhouse, who has garnered support from conservative Second Amendment advocates, said he acted in self-defense and has pleaded not guilty to all of the charges against him. A judge earlier this month delayed his trial until November.
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