New lawsuit: Wauwatosa’s racial history led to Anderson shooting

Lawyers argue that Jay Anderson’s killing was fueled by the suburb’s troubled past

By: - October 14, 2021 6:00 am
A picture of Jay Anderson Jr. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)

A picture of Jay Anderson Jr. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)

A new lawsuit over the 2016 officer-involved shooting of Jay Anderson Jr. has been filed in federal court. The lawsuit, filed by attorney Kimberley Motley, argues that the circumstances around the 25-year-old’s killing violated Anderson’s constitutional rights. The lawsuit also outlines how the troubled social history of Wauwatosa created an ecosystem that led to Anderson’s death.

Motley pinpoints the significance of the Anderson shooting. “This case is the story of how failures in policing, failures of leadership, and a city steeped in racial discrimination created the conditions which would lead one police officer to intentionally kill … Jay Anderson Jr.,” court filings state. The lawsuit argues that the manner in which Anderson was killed violated his Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights.

Kimberly Motley, the lawyer representing the Cole, Anderson, and Gonzalez families. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)
Kimberly Motley, the lawyer representing the Cole, Anderson, and Gonzalez families. (Photo  Isiah Holmes)

In the summer of 2016, Anderson was heading home when he decided to pull over in a neighborhood park. Over the last five years, his family has stated that he was leaving a birthday party.  Family members said Anderson had been drinking, and had pulled over to sleep it off rather than drive home.

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Around 3 a.m., former Wauwatosa police officer Joseph Mensah pulled into the park for a routine check. Mensah later told investigators with the Milwaukee Police Department (MPD) that he parked in front of Anderson’s car, and illuminated it with his squad’s lights. He approached the car, attempting to wake Anderson. Mensah stated he had a brief conversation with Anderson before noticing a pistol sitting on the passenger seat. The officer ordered Anderson to raise his hands, which is when Mensah managed to activate his squad’s dash camera. No video or audio exists of the interaction Mensah said he had with Anderson prior to shooting him. Mensah never ordered Anderson out of the car.

The less than 30 seconds of mute squad video capturing the shooting shows Anderson’s arms lower multiple times. While his family and Motley argue that Anderson was passing out, Mensah asserted he was lunging for the gun. Mensah struck Anderson in the head and shoulder area several times. Anderson was the second person Mensah shot within his first year at the department. Officers who arrived for backup minutes later removed the gun from Anderson’s car without taking pictures for evidence. The Milwaukee Police Department,  through the Milwaukee Area Investigative Team, later took over the investigation per state law. The shooting was ruled justified later that year. However, in July, a Milwaukee Circuit Court judge found probable cause to charge Mensah with homicide in the Anderson shooting. A special prosecutor to oversee the case’s re-investigation will be announced later this month.

Motley’s newly filed lawsuit highlights Mensah’s three shootings. It states that, “defendant Mensah is responsible for approximately 12% of all deaths by police shootings in Milwaukee County from 2013 through Oct. 4, 2020.” The lawsuit further adds that Mensah, “is responsible for 100% of all deaths by police shootings in the City of Wauwatosa since January 2011.” Although Mensah himself is a Black officer, the lawsuit argues that Wauwatosa’s unique history created a culture of abuse of power and discrimination in its police department.

Jay Anderson Sr. and Linda Anderson watch on as the listening session plays out. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)
Jay Anderson Sr. and Linda Anderson at the Wauwatosa listening session. (Photo  Isiah Holmes)

“The City of Wauwatosa is only 5.3% Black,” a section of the lawsuit which ties in the city’s history reads, “yet in 2018, 83% of arrests were of Black people and 64% of traffic stops are of Black people. And when Wauwatosa police officers stop Black people, they conduct on average a stop that is 16% longer than stops of white people. It is not only the data which backs up the fact that Wauwatosa treats Black people differently than they treat white people. It is known by Black people throughout the Milwaukee metropolitan area that you avoid driving through Wauwatosa because a police officer will find a reason to pull you over.”

The new Anderson lawsuit claims that  this has fueled a problematic mentality within the department. “In other words,” it reads, “Wauwatosa police officers commonly demand immediate and complete submission, especially by Black people, to any police directive, no matter the command. Failure to utterly and immediately submit customarily triggers hostility, aggression, and violence by Wauwatosa police officers. This custom, policy, and/or practice has led to Wauwatosa police officers, on a regular basis, using elevated levels of force, especially against Black people, including Jay Anderson.”

It’s a culture baked into the suburb which, from 1920 to at least the 1950’s, was considered a restrictive zoning city. African American people were not welcome in the community. “Even well into the 1960s it was not uncommon to see signs in Wauwatosa excluding Black people or seeing property deeds which explicitly ‘excluded non-whites from purchasing, owning, leasing or occupying,’” the lawsuit notes. When one Black man tried to build his own home in Wauwatosa in 1955, residents from the city burned it down. Today, his home is considered a historical site.

Kimberly Motley, one of the lawyers representing the families of those Officer Joseph Mensah has killed, confonts the numerous officers clad in riot gear in Wauwatosa the evening of August 14th, 2020. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)
Kimberly Motley, one of the lawyers representing the families of those officer Joseph Mensah has killed, confronts the numerous officers clad in riot gear in Wauwatosa the evening of August 14th, 2020. (Photo  Isiah Holmes)

Motley’s lawsuit notes that, “some of these restrictions reached into the 1980s.” Then came the revelation that Wauwatosa officers had participated in racist Martin Luther King Day parties, dressed in black-face and passing around racist literature in the late ’80s. Some of those officers were later promoted by Chief Barry Weber, who took office as investigations of the parties were underway. Weber was chief from 1990 until 2021, when he retired.

The lawsuit also references racist letters authored by unidentified people calling themselves the “Whites of Wauwatosa,” which were distributed to residents last summer. “We must keep Wauwatosa free from Blacks and their lack of morals,” it read, going on to say, “together we can keep Wauwatosa white, together we can keep Wauwatosa safe!” The department stated it was unable to investigate who sent the letters, yet spent much of the summer monitoring Black Lives Matter protesters. Wauwatosa’s new police chief James MacGillis and Mayor Dennis McBride have both expressed interest in moving the city on from its troubled past.

Anderson’s killing must be considered within its historical context, Motley argues. The lawsuit also notes that while Anderson’s shooting was being investigated, Mensah was awarded Wauwatosa PD’s medal of valor for his prior shooting. During separate legal actions over Anderson’s shooting, it was revealed that Mensah’s fitness for duty may not have been properly evaluated.

Officer Joseph Mensah (Photo | Wauwatosa PD)
Officer Joseph Mensah (Photo | Wauwatosa PD)

Motley’s lawsuit argues that Mensah lacked reasonable suspicion or probable cause to believe Anderson had committed any crime by sleeping in his car in the park. It also states that the officer used excessive force against Anderson by aiming for his head and firing multiple times. “Defendant Mensah did not have a valid legal basis to seize Mr. Anderson by killing him,” it reads. Currently, Mensah is employed at the Waukesha County Sheriff’s Department, where he holds the rank of detective.

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Isiah Holmes
Isiah Holmes

Isiah Holmes is a journalist and videographer, and a lifelong resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Holmes' video work dates back to his high school days at Wauwatosa East High, when he made a documentary about the local police department. Since then, his writing has been featured in Urban Milwaukee, Isthmus, Milwaukee Stories, Milwaukee Neighborhood News Services, Pontiac Tribune, and other outlets.

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