Members of the Waukesha-based faith coalition SOPHIA are concerned about the Waukesha County sheriff’s decision to hire controversial former Wauwatosa officer Joseph Mensah as a deputy. As a Wauwatosa officer, Mensah shot and killed three people, sparking massive protests and calls for his firing.
“The community has a fear and a lack of trust with the sheriff’s department right now,” says Betty Groenewold, a former president of SOPHIA (which stands for Stewards of Prophetic Hopeful Intentional Action) and a current member of the justice and equity organization’s criminal justice task force.
On Feb. 10, Groenewold joined a group of SOPHIA members to meet with Waukesha County Sheriff Eric Severson regarding that decision to hire Mensah. When SOPHIA members asked the sheriff why Mensah was hired, Groenewold recalls Severson’s response as: “Why wouldn’t I hire him?”
“[Severson] felt he was qualified,” she continues. “He felt that it was the right thing to do. He did not seem concerned that people would feel a sense of fear in the community. He did not seem to understand, or feel that was a factor in deciding to hire him.”
Mensah became the focal point of protests in Wauwatosa last year, after he was been involved in a third fatal shooting. The first two shootings were ruled as “justified” by the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office, and the third, of 17-year-old Alvin Cole, was ruled as “privileged.” The phrase “justified” wasn’t used by District Attorney John Chisholm when describing his decision not to charge Mensah.
Mensah shot Cole in February 2020. Four years prior, in 2016, Mensah fatally shot 25-year-old Jay Anderson Jr. Less than a year before Anderson, Mensah was involved in the fatal shooting of 29-year-old Antonio Gonzalez. The Wauwatosa Police Department (WPD) also found “significant training concerns’‘ after an internal review of the shooting. Mensah resigned from WPD in November, taking with him more than $34,000 in taxpayer-funded severance.
Mensah’s hiring in Waukesha was accompanied by a letter of recommendation written by WPD Chief Barry Weber. In it, Weber wrote, “during his tenure here, he proved himself to be an excellent police officer. He followed the rules, became a member of our Special Response Team, and received compliments from citizens that he interacted with.”
Weber went on to write that Mensah “has been placed in some difficult situations and responded in a thoughtful and professional manner.” The chief further asserted that Mensah would be “a positive member in your organization,” if he were hired.
However, internal emails obtained through open records requests show that Mensah was disciplined during his time at WPD for squad car crashes and excessively fast high speed chases. In one case, an independent investigator hired by the Wauwatosa Police and Fire Commission (PFC) highlighted concerns over the likelihood of a fourth shooting involving Mensah.
“The chief further confirmed that returning officer Mensah to regular duty would, in the chiefs view, create ‘unnecessary risk.’” Furthermore the independent investigation, which involved a sworn deposition of Weber, noted that the chief stated that Mensah, “is the only Wauwatosa police office in the last 10 years to fire his weapon during more than one citizen encounter and the only officer whose firing of his weapon resulted in fatalities.”
The investigation also found that Mensah misrepresented aspects of the fatal shootings during radio interviews, and violated other department policies in the process. Weber neglected to mention any of this in his letter of recommendation. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Wisconsin also condemned the department’s hiring of Mensah.
Groenewold says Severson disregarding all of this by hiring the former officer. “His motivation is not clear,” she tells Wisconsin Examiner, “especially considering the high profile around the case in Tosa and the public outpouring for Mensah’s termination or resignation. What was clear was that Sheriff Severson dismissed the outcomes from the independent review, which had been called for by the Wauwatosa Police and Fire Commission.”
She says SOFIA finds the hiring “surprising” and “concerning.” During the meeting, Groenewold recounts Severson arguing that his decision to hire someone shouldn’t be affected by the possibility of what might happen in the future.
“The sheriff didn’t seem to feel that there was a risk there based upon the evaluation and interview process, and what they went through in the whole process of hiring him,” says Groenewold. “He still did not acknowledge that there was any kind of just cause to be concerned about the fact that there were three shootings in five years…It was not really clear what the motivation was.”
Members of SOPHIA weren’t the only ones who were perplexed by Mensah’s hiring in Waukesha County. Kimberley Motley, who is representing the families of the people killed in Mensah’s shootings, called Severson’s decision “an emotional hire, rather than an intelligent one.”
Groenewold says SOPHIA has had positive interactions with the sheriff’s department in the past, but she is worried that the decision to hire Mensah could compromise relationships and erode the community’s trust in the sheriff’s department. “Trust seems to be certainly important in terms of effective policing in the community,” she notes. “And right now, many people do not see that. Especially people of color.”