Protesters gather at Wauwatosa’s City Hall. They called for the firing of Officer Joseph Mensah, but also for the implementation of body cameras at the police department. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)
By order of the Wauwatosa (Tosa) Police and Fire Commission (PFC), Officer Joseph Mensah has been placed on administrative suspension with pay. For the three families of those who died in police shootings involving Mensah, the move represents a big step forward. Still, the pressure continues to mount from the near daily protests and demonstrations calling for the officer to be fired. Now there is a new unknown: Could that pressure ultimately backfire on the families and residents who have taken on Tosa PD?
Kimberly Motley, one of the lawyers now representing the Cole, Anderson and Gonzalez families, started off her statement at Wednesday evening’s PFC meeting by reciting part of the Wauwatosa Police Department’s (WPD) code of ethics. “As a law enforcement officer,” it reads, “my fundamental duty is to serve mankind; to safeguard lives and property; to protect the innocent against deception, the weak against violence or disorder, and to respect the Constitutional rights of all men’s liberty, equality and justice.” The code of ethics can be found in the first few pages of every year’s annual report for the department.
“We believe the actions of Officer Mensah,” said Motley, “with regards to him firing 19 shots in five years, and killing Alvin Cole, Jay Anderson and Antonio Gonalzez, that he has violated his law enforcement code of ethics. And we believe that he should be terminated immediately. If this is something that the [Police and Fire] Commission is not prepared to do today, then we kindly ask that the [Police and Fire] Commission suspend officer Mensah immediately, without pay, and that his service weapon be taken from him. Because we believe that he poses a significant risk to the public.”
The July 15 PFC meeting had two objectives: To take up a complaint filed against Mensah by Motley’s law firm on the behalf of the Anderson family and to discuss the hiring of a third-party investigator to look into the complaint. Mensah killed 25-year-old Jay Anderson Jr. in 2016, after waking Anderson, who had pulled over his car and fallen asleep in it in a park at 3 a.m. Tosa police officers who are not assigned to motorcycle duty do not wear body cameras, and Mensah failed to activate his dash camera when he approached Anderson’s car.
Mensah fired after he claimed Anderson kept reaching for a gun. The officer never removed Anderson from the car, and the gun he said he saw was removed from the car by other officers before pictures were taken of the scene. Less than 30 seconds of mute dash footage exists of the shooting.
“The only reason why we have any video evidence is because officer Mensah turned on his squad camera after he killed Jay, and the squad camera goes back 30 seconds,” explained Motley. “But that 30 seconds, there’s no audio.”
Less than a year before that shooting, while Mensah was still in his probationary period at WPD, he was involved in the fatal shooting of 28-year-old Antonio Gonzalez. For that fatal incident Mensah and his partner, Officer Jeffery Newman, were awarded medals of valor. Mensah’s award states that he received it for “your act of bravery in stopping the threat of an armed suspect on July 16, 2015.” Gonzalez was shot in his home after officers responded to reports of a man wielding a sword.
Although District Attorney John Chisholm didn’t prosecute the novice officer for the shooting, Motley insisted that Chisholm’s decision was irrelevant to their complaint’s merit. “What the DA focuses on is whether or not there should be any criminal charges that should be imposed on officer Mensah,” said Motley. “Whether or not there was essentially self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt. That’s different than what this hearing is for.” The complaint focused on whether there were any rule or procedural violations committed by Mensah, which Motley says there were.
Speaking next was Deja Vishny, a lawyer assisting Motley in representing the families. Vishny began by imploring the PFC to hold in-person meetings in the future, with appropriate social distancing guidelines. Days before the meeting, the PFC changed the format of July 15 to Zoom-only. Protesters and residents were at City Hall, watching the meeting on a large monitor. Some livestreamed their protest of the format, and showed the library literally feet away as it allowed residents to come in and out, some without masks, picking up and dropping off books.
Vishny suggested that Mensah’s lawyers, attorney Jonathan Cermele and attorney Hanna Kolberg, might have conflicts of interest, noting that Cermele has represented not only Mensah, but all WPD officers involved in the shooting of 17-year-old Alvin Cole, the officer’s last fatal shooting. Kolberg is also representing Mensah in a Milwaukee County civil case.
“I don’t believe the PFC has any authority to determine who I represent, and who I may not represent,” said Cermele. “Just as the PFC has no authority to determine who counsel for the defendant may represent, and who they may not represent.”
Cermele, who has 25 years of experience representing cops, also argued that Motley and Vishny didn’t name specific procedures and guidelines that Mensah violated. Motley rebutted that this is, in part, because WPD has not yet fulfilled records requests for that very information.
Cermele also introduced the notion that the entire process around the complaint “has already been tainted” by the behavior of protesters and even elected officials.
Public attention and pressure
The protests, which have endured for 50 days in Milwaukee County, have put obvious pressure on elected officials and WPD. The scale of the demonstrations is unprecedented for the suburb.
In June, protesters filled the lobby area of the police department, as well as the surrounding streets. In July, dozens of residents packed a city meeting, which ultimately resulted in fast-tracked plans for the implementation of body cameras for Tosa officers.
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Big-name celebrities including Jay-Z, Meek Mill and the Jonas Brothers, all began following the Cole case. On July 7, the Cole family received a call from WPD warning that arrests could occur if they demonstrated that day. That evening, after police fulfilled that promise, City Hall was again packed as Mayor Dennis McBride presided over a Common Council meeting.
With the PFC meeting just a couple of days away, Ald. Heather Kuhl became the first Tosa elected official to call for Mensah to be fired. This was followed by a Common Council resolution also calling for Mensah’s termination. Kuhl requested that her statement be included in the meeting packet for the July 15 PFC meeting.
“I think that’s wholly inappropriate,” said Cermele. Arguing that the PFC must operate in an independent fashion, Cermele made the case that input from the city’s elected officials had also tainted the process. The mayor, who is a lawyer himself, disagreed and said Cermele’s comments boil down to legal strategy.
“We didn’t tell the Police and Fire Commission what to do, we don’t have the authority to do that,” McBride told Wisconsin Examiner. “What we suggested was that there might be alternative ways of resolving the situation. And we instructed the city administrator and the police chief, not the Police and Fire Commission, to explore those alternatives. So, it was not a directive to the Police and Fire Commission.”
McBride does not accept the argument that the process was tainted. “We are the elected officials,” said McBride, “and the city, the mayor, and the common council have to respond to people across the political spectrum and deal with issues that are plaguing the city. And we have the police issue in front of us, and we have to deal with those things.”
Still, as the meeting ended, officials continued to discuss the influence of public pressure on the commissioners, including some commissioners who complained that protesters were outside their homes during this meeting, including someone setting off fireworks.
Moving forward from the suspension
Although Mensah has been suspended with pay, Motley’s clients won’t be satisfied until he’s removed from WPD. The case of Alvin Cole is still under investigation by the Milwaukee Police Department (MPD) and DA Chisholm. Protests and marches will continue, in Wauwatosa and across Milwaukee County, with more actions planned for Tosa specifically. In addition to these, the PFC is likely to hold further meetings regarding Mensah. As investigations continue, residents and elected officials continue to watch the process play out. “I hope that it provides healing for everyone concerned,” said McBride.
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