Controversial Wauwatosa Police Officer Suspended By Police & Fire Commission

Jul 16, 2020

A citizens panel in Wauwatosa has suspended Joseph Mensah, a police officer who has been the focus of protests for shooting three males to death while in the line of duty over the last five years. The Wauwatosa Police and Fire Commission has also appointed a former federal prosecutor to look into a complaint that aims to have Mensah fired.

The unanimous vote to suspend Mensah came Wednesday night, after a closed session of the commission. Earlier, during an open portion of the meeting held on Zoom, attorneys for the family of one of the men Mensah killed, Jay Anderson Jr., argued Mensah did not belong on the Wauwatosa police force. Lawyer Kim Motley says Mensah has violated the police department's rules. She says Mensah fired 19 shots during the three fatal shootings. 

"And killing Jay Anderson, Alvin Cole and Antonio Gonzales, he has violated his law enforcement code of ethics,” Motley said.

Motley says it's not relevant that prosecutors ruled Mensah acted in self-defense when shooting Anderson and Gonzales.

"We're not here to focus on criminal charges. What the DA focuses on is whether or not there was any criminal charges that should be imposed on Officer Mensah. Whether there was, essentially, self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt. That's different than what this hearing is for,” Motley said.

Jay Anderson Jr.'s daughter, Jaelyn Anderson, speaks to the news media in June. Black Lives Matter activist Frank Nitty holds her hand.
Credit Chuck Quirmbach

The February incident, during which Mensah shot 17-year-old Cole outside Mayfair Mall, is still under review by the Milwaukee Police Department, and Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm. Mensah's attorney Jon Cermele says he wants to hear more specifics from the Anderson family lawyers as to which rules the officer allegedly violated.

"To itemize and specify the specific rule violations or policy violations that they believe my client has engaged in. So that my client is then provided notice and the opportunity to defend himself,” Cermele said.

The Anderson family lawyers charge that the Wauwatosa Police Department has been slow to respond to an Open Records request filed a month ago, that the lawyers say could shine a light on rule violations.

But getting that information may now be one of the roles for former U.S. Attorney Steven Biskupic, who was appointed Wednesday night to investigate the Anderson case.

Commission member Victor Plantinga endorsed the move, saying Biskupic in 2006 successfully brought federal charges against some of the Milwaukee police officers who severely beat a biracial man, Frank Jude, at a party. Plantinga, a defense attorney, noted Biskupic's action came after a state court jury cleared the officers.

"So, I do believe that shows he's thorough, he's fair. We haven't always seen eye to eye, I have to tell him that. But I do believe that for a position like this, he's a very solid choice. I'd support that,” Plantinga said.

 

The Wauwatosa Police Department headquarters on Wednesday evening. The driveway and parking lot are being rebuilt.
Credit Chuck Quirmbach

The Anderson's lawyer, Motley, says she doesn't want law enforcement officers helping Biskupic, as it might create a conflict of interest.

Biskupic told the meeting that he'll be aided by former FBI agents. "A wealth of expertise, especially regarding firing in the line of duty. And so, my goal on this is to be thorough, to move promptly,” Biskupic said, adding that because he'll do the work for free, he'll be independent of the city of Wauwatosa. 

The probe may take up to 60 days and it apparently will go ahead while Mensah is suspended with pay. Wauwatosa Police Chief Barry Weber unsuccessfully argued the suspension wasn't needed.

"Just so you know, he is currently on administrative leave, still with pay, until the DA makes his ruling. So, putting him on suspension doesn't make any difference as to what his status is. So I would ask you leave him the way it is,” Weber said.

But the vote to suspend Mensah brought a much different reaction from Black Lives Matter protesters watching the discussion on a monitor at Wauwatosa City Hall. Some have been marching and calling for action against Mensah for six weeks. 

They broke out in cheers and applause after the commission’s action.

State Rep. Jonathan Brostoff, D-Milwaukee, who streamed the reaction live on the internet, also told viewers to “keep marching — it's working.”

Editor's note: WUWM's Emily Files contributed to this report.