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 | Isiah Holmes)
Civil rights attorney Kimberley Motley has filed a new lawsuit in the Eastern District of Wisconsin, focusing on the 2020 killing of 17-year-old Alvin Cole by former Wauwatosa officer Joseph Mensah. Cole was shot while fleeing an altercation between a group of youth at Wauwatosa’s Mayfair Mall. Police said Cole fired a single shot from a handgun before Mensah fired. Dash video shows Cole was shot in the back four times while on his hands and knees. A handgun was recovered afterward. Branding this “the story of one of the deadliest police officers in American history,” the complaint filed by Motley argues that a culture of policing in Wauwatosa catalyzed what would become Mensah’s third fatal shooting in five years.
The lawsuit is pursuing damages against Mensah, Weber, and the city of Wauwatosa for Cole’s death. As in a civil lawsuit filed for the death of Jay Anderson Jr., the second person Mensah shot, Cole’s lawsuit connects Wauwatosa history to the events of his death. From 1920 to at least the 1950’s, Wauwatosa was considered a restrictive zoning city where non-white residents were prohibited from living. This led a culture of racist housing covenants which barred individual homes from being rented to non-white residents, especially Black residents. These practices endured into the 1960s and even the 1970s. Through the 80s and early 90s, the Wauwatosa Police Department (WPD) was also known to host black-face parties on Martin Luther King Day. Clothing and food stereotypical of Black people were featured, and fliers were distributed advertising a fake hunting season where the “animal” to be hunted was Black residents.
Weber arrived at the department as chief while the black-face parties were being investigated. Officers who held the parties were promoted to supervisory ranks by Weber, and their actions were protected by the Police and Fire Commission as free speech. During the summer of 2020, as protests filled Wauwatosa over the deaths of Cole, Anderson and Antonio Gonzales, racist letters decrying “the Blacks and their lack of morals” were distributed in Wauwatosa. The department declined to investigate the letters. Weber retired in 2021, and was replaced by former Milwaukee Police Captain and Wauwatosa-native James MacGillis.
This history, Motley’s lawsuit argues, laid the groundwork for Mensah’s three fatal shootings. Although Mensah himself is of African descent, the lawsuit outlines that the young officer’s formative experiences would have been at a department which “approaches Black and brown people as inherently suspicious” and “is more likely to use force on Black and brown people.”
Prior to resigning from WPD and getting hired at the Waukesha County Sheriff’s Department, Mensah was the only WPD officer to kill anyone in eight years. Although several officers were on the scene of Cole’s shooting, only Mensah fired. While his second shooting was being investigated in 2016, Mensah was awarded a medal of valor for his first shooting less than a year prior to Gonzales. The newly filed lawsuit notes that Gonzales was killed “only seven months into his time as a police officer.” Unlike the first two shootings, Cole’s shooting was simply ruled “privileged” by the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office. The office, however, did not put the word “justified” anywhere in the charging decision. It also argues that Mensah’s fitness for duty and psychological status were not properly evaluated after his first two shootings. “Defendant Mensah is responsible for 100% of all deaths by police shootings in the city of Wauwatosa since at least January 2011,” reads the lawsuit.
A wound on Cole’s forearm indicates, the lawsuit reads, that the shot fired from his handgun struck his left forearm. After the shot was fired at Cole, the lawsuit states that the teenager “immediately fell to the ground and dropped his gun.” It further states that Cole, “was then kneeling with both hands on the ground and this gun was not in his hands.” After he was shot by Mensah, one officer yelled to Mensah, “Stop! Stop!” The lawsuit states that in that moment the officer “did not understand why Mensah was shooting Mr. Cole as Mr. Cole was not a threat to any individual and [officer] Shamsi had control of the situation without resorting to deadly force.” Officers also gave conflicting commands after Mensah fired including, “Get away from the gun,” and, “Do not move or I will shoot you.”
On May 12, 2021, Mensah was awarded a medal of valor for killing Cole by Weber. This occurred despite the fact that Mensah no longer worked at WPD. The lawsuit seeks damages not only from Mensah, but from Weber and the city of Wauwatosa as well. Whereas the city demonstrated a problematic racial history, Weber awarded Mensah for his shootings and excused the behavior of other officers, such as the ones who held the black-face parties. The lawsuit also accuses the city of “failure to create and implement ” adequate use of force policies, and failures in evaluating Mensah’s psychological state and fitness for duty. It also accuses Mensah of using excessive and discriminatory force against Cole.
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