Jay Anderson Jr. (Photo provided by the Anderson Family)
As the John Doe investigation into the death of 25-year-old Jay Anderson Jr. in 2016 continues, questions linger around the decision to grant immunity to three Wauwatosa officers who responded to the scene. The officers were offered immunity in exchange for their testimony about what happened that night. It was a decision one of the special prosecutors involved in the John Doe investigation admitted was “unorthodox” in a filing to Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge Glenn Yamahiro. The immunity offers underscored some questionable aspects of the investigation following Anderson’s death nearly six years ago.
Anderson was killed by former Wauwatosa officer Joseph Mensah during the summer of 2016, during what Mensah called a routine late night check of a nearby park. It was nearing 3 a.m. when Mensah encountered Anderson, who appeared to be asleep after a night out drinking with friends. Mensah woke Anderson, which took a couple attempts. Mensah stated that as they spoke, he noticed a pistol sitting on the front passenger seat beside Anderson.
Less than 30 seconds of mute dash footage was captured showing Anderson, still in the driver’s seat with his hands raised. At this point, Mensah had his own weapon drawn. At several points Anderson’s arms lowered in what Mensah said was a lunge for the gun. Anderson’s family assert that it appears he was merely passing out again.
Mensah fired several shots at Anderson, five of which struck him in the head and neck region. Personnel from the Milwaukee County Medical Examiner’s office testified during the John Doe court hearings in May 2021 that the nature of Anderson’s wounds indicated he was not lunging. Former Milwaukee Police Department homicide detective Ricky Burems also testified that the lack of blood on the passenger side of the car was also evidence against the claim that he was lunging.
Anderson was Mensah’s second shooting in the line of duty at Wauwatosa PD over the course of a year. Nearly four years after killing Anderson, Mensah fatally shot 17-year-old Alvin Cole near Mayfair Mall. Cole’s death triggered months of protest during the fall, summer, and winter of 2020. Mensah could face charges of homicide by negligent use of a dangerous weapon for shooting Anderson as a result of the John Doe proceeding.
When other Wauwatosa officers arrived, the gun Mensah said was beside Anderson was removed from his car and placed in the back of a police car. Anderson’s body was also removed from the vehicle and searched.
Not only did Wauwatosa officers move Anderson’s weapon, but Wauwatosa detectives canvassed the area for witnesses days after the shooting. Their observations that there were no witnesses to the shooting other than Mensah were forwarded to MPD, which led the investigation as part of the Milwaukee Area Investigative Team (MAIT).
(Wisconsin state law established in 2014 that police agencies may not investigate their own shootings, and that an outside agency must lead and handle the investigation.)
The MAIT team consists of investigators from numerous Milwaukee-area police departments, including from Wauwatosa. Anderson’s death was ruled as a justified shooting by the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s office in December 2016. It wasn’t until 2021 when civil rights attorney Kimberley Motley pushed for the case to be re-opened that the John Doe proceeding began.
Two Wauwatosa officers, Ralph Salyers and Stephen Mills, were involved in removing the gun from Anderson’s car. Both of them were offered immunity in exchange for speaking to the two special prosecutors assigned to re-evaluate the Anderson shooting. Another officer who arrived on the scene, Captain Gary Gabrich, was also offered immunity.
One of the special prosecutors, Scott Hansen, told Wisconsin Examiner that the move to offer immunity was a tactical consideration. “We are attempting to be as thorough as possible,” said Hansen. “As we cannot compel testimony at this stage, witness participation is voluntary, and we concluded the immunity orders you saw were necessary to secure the cooperation of potentially important witnesses.” Hansen also noted that “they [the orders] are limited to the specific information the witness provides during the interview.”
Defense attorney Ramon Valdez of Brown Buffalo Law in Milwaukee scratched his head about the immunity orders when he heard about them in early January. “Why would you do that? To get them to talk?” Valdez, who is not involved in the Anderson case, wonders. “Why would they then want to talk if they already have immunity? They could say, ‘Well, we don’t know anything more than what’s on the video.’ What is there to talk about if you grant them immunity?” Valdez highlights to Wisconsin Examiner that Salyers and Mills, as officers, would have been aware of the law mandating an outside investigation. “It points to the poor training of those officers” that they tampered with the scene, says Valdez.
Sometime after Mensah was cleared for shooting Anderson, the Wauwatosa Police Department (WPD) conducted an internal review of the shooting. Although undated, the document was sent in a 2018 email between WPD supervisors. It identified “two significant training issues” regarding the Anderson shooting. “First,” the internal review stated, “all audio and video must be turned off after the incident itself is over. (Mensah was asked too many questions while the microphone was still active.)” However, had the video and audio been turned off, then the officers removing the gun from the car and the conversation they had around that act would not have been captured.
The review also emphasized that “we need extra training in evidence collection. Not only when to collect items but when we shouldn’t.” It added that “roll call training or in-service training would be the best route to take to ensure we collect what we need to and leave other items alone to be photographed.” The review stated that the gun was removed because Salyers and Mills felt Anderson could be “playing possum,” with one officer stating he didn’t notice Anderson’s facial wounds.
Given the wounds Anderson had received, Valdez rejects the officer’s claims that Anderson still had a pulse when they arrived. “So even if it was a mistake,” he tells Wisconsin Examiner, “now they’re being granted immunity again, to either cover up their own wrongdoing or, if it’s not wrongdoing and criminal, it’s certainly bad policy.” Valdez reflects on the many questions about what officers did and didn’t do on the scene after Anderson was shot. “There were just too many odd things going on,” he tells Wisconsin Examiner. “It smells of a cover-up, it has all the indications of a cover-up.” Valdez also points to the way Salyers, Mills and Mensah approached Anderson’s car, some of the officers with their long-rifles out and aimed. After shooting Anderson, Mensah radioed out, “I’m OK; Suspect down.”
Valdez finds that suspicious. “I think that was all for show,” he says. Given that the officers who arrived were more experienced than Mensah, Valdez fears what happened after Anderson was killed amounted to older officers protecting a more inexperienced colleague. “It could be that they were covering for Mensah as old-timers trying to cover for a young guy who, maybe they bought his story right off the get-go,” Valdez tells Wisconsin Examiner. “That he went for the gun, without any ability to back-track the evidence because now they’ve tampered with it.” Even once the investigation was taken over by MPD Valdez fears the system isn’t independent enough. “It’s cops protecting cops,” he stresses.
As the investigation continues, Valdez fears that more offers of immunity could diminish the inquiry’s impact. “If more cops are offered immunity, who gets held accountable?” he asks. “Does it go up the chain then? If you’re going to grant officers immunity, where does it stop? Now we’re going to give another supervisor immunity because they’re improperly training their officers?”
Following the protests of 2020, Mensah resigned from WPD and is now a detective at the Waukesha County Sheriff’s Department. Nearly 11% of WPD’s staff have left the force, including former Chief Barry Weber, and supervisors who authored the Anderson shooting internal review and participated in protest enforcement. “Is the officer immunity connected to a potential violation of criminal law for them violating the policy of hands off, let an independent police department investigate this crime?” Valdez asks. “Very troubling.”
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