Tosa cop violated multiple department policies, independent investigator finds

By: - October 7, 2020 2:03 pm
A screen shot of Joseph Mensah's Go Fund Me page. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)

A screen shot of Joseph Mensah’s Go Fund Me page. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)

As the morning rolled around on October 7, the day Milwaukee District Attorney John Chisholm was expected to announce his  decision about charges in  the shooting of 17-year-old Alvin Cole by Wauwatosa police officer Joseph Mensah, an independent investigator hired by the Wauwatosa Police and Fire Commission (PFC) released a report recommending Mensah’s termination.

“Officer Mensah knowingly violated policies,” a heading in the report reads in bold lettering, “by publicly discussing with the media an ongoing investigation.” Mensah gave public statements   five months after the Cole shooting. First came a podcast interview on July 28, then a radio interview. “In both interviews,” reads the report, “Officer Mensah discussed the Cole shooting, which was then under investigation by the District Attorney.”

Policies at the Wauwatosa Police Department (WPD) dictate that no officer may do an interview unless pre-approved by command staff. Although Mensah’s lawyer argued that the interviews were done in Mensah’s own private capacity, the investigator rejected the argument.

“I recommend that the Commission reject this contention,” wrote Steven Biskupic, the report’s author, “particularly given the specifics of the radio interview. Nothing in the interview indicated that Officer Mensah was speaking about the Cole incident in anything other than his capacity as Wauwatosa Police Officer.” Even when considering Mensah was suspended with pay by the PFC, the investigator stated, “Officer Mensah was still in violation of Policies 17-11 and 13-08.”

Chief Barry Weber also argued on Mensah’s behalf, according to the report, suggesting that “any violation is mitigated because Officer Mensah did not discuss any facts not already on the public record and may not have appreciated the seriousness of this violation.” The report recommends that the PFC reject Weber’s assertions. “First,” it reads, “Officer Mensah provided misleading information during the interview. Second, one important purpose of the rule is to restrict all unauthorized public statements, regardless of content.”

Mensah appeared on conservative radio shows and podcasts in these cases. On August 11, Weber also took  to conservative online radio to denounce the protests against Mensah and the department. During one of his own interviews Mensah attempted to discredit the notion that his involvement  in three fatal shootings in the last five years was unusual. “It’s crazy because if you were to look at my department and other departments as well, there are several officers that have fired way more. I’m not trying to deflect onto them, but the issue is even with my own department, we have over half a dozen officers within these past five years that have gotten in several critical incidents of shootings.”

The investigator’s report confirms that this is not true. “In fact, according to the Wauwatosa Police Department, there are not officers that have fired ‘way more’ nor are there ‘over half a dozen’ officers who in the last five years have fired their weapons on ‘several’ separate incidents,” it reads. “The Wauwatosa Police Chief stated that no Wauwatosa Police Officer during this time frame has fired his or her weapon in citizen encounters more than once, except for Officer Mensah.”

Mensah also implied that all three of his shootings involved people who had committed crimes. The report, however, highlights that Mensah’s second shooting — of 25-year-old Jay Anderson Jr — did not involve a criminal act on Anderson’s part. Rather, the officer approached Anderson as he slept in his car in a closed park at 3 a.m.

The report explored certain details of Anderon’s shooting, and Mensah’s re-telling of it, more in depth. It pointed out inconsistencies in the statements Mensah initially made to Milwaukee Police Department detectives in 2016 after shooting Anderson, and those given later in his 2020 interviews — particularly in how and under what circumstances his squad’s dash camera would activate.

Less than 30 seconds of mute dash footage was all that recorded the interaction during that summer night four years ago. Whereas he was “hazy” about certain details immediately after the incident, the report notes a “contrast” in how he recounted his difficulties activating his squad camera during his on-air interviews. “Officer Mensah conveyed no such uncertainty in the radio interview as to the activation of the video.”

The report concludes that the PFC has grounds to terminate Mensah’s employment at WPD. In a section entitled “Fitness for Duty Consideration,” the investigator wrote, “I find that the totality of Officer Mensah’s statements under Rule 7 and Policy 13-08 further impact his credibility as a potential witness under fitness-for-duty rules.” It describes Mensah’s statements, particularly regarding shootings involving other Wauwatosa officers, as “improper exaggeration meant to minimize his own conduct.”

The report cites  precedent for terminating an officer for making inaccurate statements about prior and ongoing investigations. The PFC now has a choice before it. However, the report does add that if the PFC does terminate Mensah for fitness-for-duty rules, then the city will need to consider whether he is entitled to duty disability benefits.

Correction: An earlier version of this brief stated that the PFC had issued a recommendation that Officer Mensah be fired. In fact, the grounds for termination were found by an independent investigation and the PFC has not yet issued a recommendation.

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Isiah Holmes
Isiah Holmes

Isiah Holmes is a journalist and videographer, and a lifelong resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His writing has been featured in Urban Milwaukee, Isthmus, Milwaukee Stories, Milwaukee Neighborhood News Services, Pontiac Tribune, the Progressive Magazine, Al Jazeera, and other outlets.