Activists and the family of Jacob Albright gather in Kenosha to hold a rally and spread awareness of his death in the custody of local police. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
Beneath a hot sun beaming down from blue skies Saturday morning, the family of Jacob Albright joined allies and community members on the steps of the Kenosha County Courthouse. A week before, they’d learned that Albright died while in the custody of police officers transporting him to the Kenosha County Jail. Questions have grown since police first suggested that the 36-year-old somehow shot himself while detained in the back of a squad car. Albright’s family, backed by local activists and community members, are refusing to let those questions go.
“He was hilarious, and witty, and sarcastic, and goofy, and child-like, and smart, and artistic and creative,” Kailah Berkgstrom told Wisconsin Examiner, recalling Albright who was technically her uncle. Since they were only three years apart in age and were raised together, however, Berkgstrom thought of Albright as “my first big brother.” She saw Albright’s personality shine through his sometimes prankish or mischievous nature. “He was still a really good person.”
As she spoke with Wisconsin Examiner, Berkgstrom occasionally glanced behind her at police assembled nearby. Besides a handful of activists from the Milwaukee Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, the gathering at the courthouse included around 20 to 30 members of Albright’s extended family. In response, at least 10 squad cars of officers from the Kenosha Police Department and deputies from the Kenosha Sheriff’s Office encircled the family, staking out nearby streets. Both marked and unmarked cars sat in plain view a block away, from which officers also piloted a drone flying over the group gathered outside the courthouse.
“I’m desperately always trying to be a very understanding person in all parties, and take accountability for everything,” said Berkgstrom. “My instant thought is because of the past here, they need to do their jobs, which is protecting the community and making sure nothing escalates. That’s where I’m trying to be understanding on their part. On my part, I do feel it’s a little bit instigatory and it just already sets the tone. So it’s a little irritating. I very obviously took a photo of them, because I want them to feel like they’re being patrolled just as much as we are.”
Nearly three years ago, the same place where Albright’s family stood was the site of protests and unrest following the non-fatal shooting of Jacob Blake Jr. The Kenosha PD officer who shot Blake in the back several times, Rusten Sheskey, was later cleared of all charges. Local activists recall that weeks of protest, triggered by the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, had already occurred leading up to the Blake shooting. The unrest following Blake’s shooting caused millions of dollars in property destruction and fire damage. Armed milita-like groups patrolled neighborhoods looking to confront Black Lives Matter protesters, leading to the now infamous shooting involving a teenage boy using an AR-15 style rifle to fatally shoot two people in the protest crowd. The teen, Kyle Rittenhouse, was later acquitted by a Kenosha jury.
Watching the police observers, Berkgstrom commented, “If they would’ve kept this much vigilance in the back seat [of the squad car where Albright died], we would’ve been fine.” Albright’s sister, Nicole Melander, felt similarly. “I understand that they need to keep an eye on things,” Melander told Wisconsin Examiner. “I would never want to see anything happen to my city like it did back in 2020 ever again, so that’s the last thing we want. We’re out here in peace and integrity in my brother’s honor. And the main thing is, but for those officers’ failure to do their job effectively, my brother would still be alive. And that’s all there is to it.”
According to an official statement, officers of the Pleasant Prairie Police Department said they’d arrested Albright (who was not specifically named in the statement) for weapon’s charges. “While driving the squad on Sheridan Road near the entrance of the Kenosha County Jail, officers heard a gunshot from the backseat prisoner portion of the squad,” the statement says. “Preliminary information indicates the arrestee suffered a self-inflicted gunshot wound from a concealed weapon not located in the initial search by officers.”
An investigation is being conducted by the Racine County Sheriff’s Office. “Our thoughts are with all law enforcement personnel involved with this incident and the decedent’s family during this tragic time,” the statement continued. “We wish to thank the public for their continued support, and we ask for your patience and understanding while this matter is under investigation.”
Albright’s family members say it wasn’t through law enforcement that they first heard about what happened. Berkgstrom found out through social media, recalling that “it wasn’t officially announced to the family until 1:30 in the morning, when the sheriff showed up at the house.” She added, “They basically just told us that he was pronounced dead earlier that evening, and asked about his medical history as far as treating him at the morgue for an autopsy. But they would not talk about any of the police investigation, or any of the police involvement, or the transport, or anything.” When family members pressed for more details, they were allegedly told there was “a non-disclosure” in play, Berkgstrom said.
Melander recalls being in bed when she found out. “The crazy thing is I have a hard time remembering details about the night, and it was only a week ago,” she told Wisconsin Examiner. “I recall my daughter calling me and saying ‘everyone’s saying it was Jake.’ And I was saying, ‘what was Jake?’” Like her daughter, she looked online for more information. People had already started gathering on-scene at the courthouse, including local activists.
The Milwaukee Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression later posted photographs of Kenosha PD officers who they said were confrontational with onlookers. “To make things worse, law enforcement decided to arrest a completely non-violent protester and continued to agitate the crowd after the arrest by shoving protesters off a median they had been peacefully occupying for hours,” the post read. The Alliance also posted photos of the officers on Facebook. Both the Alliance and the Kenosha Police Department confirmed with Wisconsin Examiner that one demonstrator had been arrested for disorderly conduct at the scene of Albright’s death that day.
A day after Albright’s death, a vigil held on the Kenosha County Courthouse steps saw dozens turn out. “The police narrative that Albright killed himself is being met with great skepticism, understandably so,” the Milwaukee Alliance posted on Facebook after the vigil. Although the Racine County Sheriff’s Office is investigating the shooting, as state law prohibits law enforcement agencies from investigating their own shootings, statements regarding what happened have come from the Pleasant Prairie PD, which is the involved agency in this case. “We are not going to release any further information on this case at this time,” said the department’s Chief David Smetana. “I am confident that the family of this individual who took his life will get the answers to their questions and concerns after the investigation being conducted by the Racine County Sheriff’s Office is completed.”
In the meantime, Albright’s family feels that media coverage has demonized him. “The public, and the media, and everyone else is doing a great job of highlighting his criminal history on their own, and we’re not going to jump on the narrative and add to the fuel of them already trying to present him in a negative light,” said Berkgstrom. Online court records for Albright show he’d faced charges dating back to 2004 for trespassing, possession of cannabis, drug paraphernalia and driving without a seat belt. In late June, he was charged with physical abuse of an elder, disorderly conduct and domestic abuse.
Albright’s family admits that he’d had a troubled life, and struggled with mental illness. “I don’t know if they’re trying to justify his death,” said Berkgstrom, “but in reality it just more or less adds fuel to the fire that you should have taken extra caution in searching him and doing your job. So really, let’s talk about it. Let’s talk about the cases he’s had, let’s talk about the record he’s had, because the more you talk, the more it just makes sense.”
Berkgstrom remembers a man more complex than his criminal record. “His dad is a really good woodworker, and he did a lot of that with his dad and became really really good with it. Almost like mosaic woodwork, ornate like church-type of woodwork. He was a really good drawer, he was really good with plants.” Albright, who’s family is from the Kenosha area, is also remembered as a talented skateboarder, and a collector who’d line his bedroom walls with mint-condition comic books and action figures. “He was all types of things.”
Albright’s family says his affectionate status as a “troublemaker” with his family members is something else that has been taken out of context in recent media coverage. Berkgstrom recalls once, Albright brought a reclining chair from a Wisconsin Dells hotel lobby up to her room, because she was four months pregnant and needed to sit. “He wanted a place for his niece to put her feet up,” she said with a smile. It’s just one example she could remember of Albright’s well intentioned actions not always being aligned with the rules.
Melander recalls her brother the same way. “I just keep saying the same things over and over again,” she told Wisconsin Examiner. “He was super smart, and super creative, and one of the funniest people that you’d ever want to meet. He would do the goofiest things just out of nowhere just to see people smile, just to make people laugh.” Melander said he reminded people of the character Shaggy from Scooby Doo, and his woodwork left an impression on his family. Yet, Albright was also troubled since childhood. “He was a handful when he was little, and it got better sometimes for periods of time,” said Melander. “But he never really could get any consistent kind of help that he needed for his mental health issues and childhood traumas and things like that.”
Other siblings, friends and family members also shared tear-choked memories of Albright on Saturday. After a short rally at the courthouse, the family and allies marched on the sidewalk to a local farmer’s market, chanting Albright’s name along the way. Police squad cars, bicycle officers and the drone shadowed their every movement, never interacting with the marchers.
At the farmer’s market, the group handed out fliers about the case and talked to locals. Some people appeared receptive, while others seemed bothered by the family’s presence. Police officers spoke with the market’s staff as the family left the area. During the rally, some of Albright’s family, friends and their activist supporters described seeing more police near their homes since the incident and feeling as though they’ve been followed.
Returning to the courthouse, more speeches and chants were held before the family dispersed. Albright’s family and local activists are pushing for the release of video showing the incident, and for more transparency in the case. Members of the Milwaukee Alliance say they are working on helping start a similar anti-racist group to focus on the Kenosha area.
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