WAUWATOSA, Wis. - An attorney for the family of a Black teen killed by a suburban Milwaukee police officer vowed Thursday to keep fighting and working to prove racism pervades the officer’s department after a prosecutor declined to file charges in the case.
Attorney Kimberley Motley said she plans to file a federal lawsuit against Wauwatosa Police Officer Joseph Mensah in 17-year-old Alvin Cole's death. Motley sued in state court on Tuesday seeking department documents that she believes will show Mensah’s supervisors are racist and that officers have racially profiled Black drivers for years. She also wants Mensah and Chief Barry Weber fired.
Officer Joseph Mensah, Alvin Cole
Meanwhile, Cole’s sister has demanded the resignation of Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm after he declined to file charges against Mensah. Cole is the third person Mensah has killed since he joined the Wauwatosa department in early 2015. He has been cleared of wrongdoing each time.
“From the family’s perspective, we just want justice,” Motley said. “We want Officer Mensah to be held accountable.”
Mensah’s attorney, Jonathan Cermele, hasn't returned messages seeking comment.
Mensah, who is Black, shot Cole during a chase outside a Wauwatosa mall in February. According to investigators’ reports, Cole had a gun and fired it; Chisholm said it appeared he shot himself in the arm. Officers said Cole refused commands to drop the weapon, prompting Mensah to fire.
Joseph Mensah, Antonio Gonzalez, Jay Anderson, Alvin Cole
Mensah shot and killed Antonio Gonzales in 2015 after police said Gonzales refused to drop a sword. A year later Mensah shot Jay Anderson Jr. In that case, Mensah found Anderson in a car parked in a park after hours. Mensah said he saw a gun on the passenger seat and thought Anderson was reaching for it, so he shot him. Mensah wasn’t charged in either shooting. Anderson was Black. Gonzales was Hispanic.
The Cole shooting sparked protests all summer in Wauwatosa, a city of 48,000 just west of Milwaukee. The demonstrations played out against a backdrop of protests nationwide over the death in May of George Floyd, a Black man who died after a white Minneapolis police officer pressed a knee on his neck for nearly eight minutes.
The Wauwatosa Police and Fire Commission suspended Mensah in July and asked former U.S. Attorney Steven Biskupic to determine whether Mensah should be disciplined. Biskupic recommended that the commission terminate Mensah, calling the risk of a fourth shooting too great. Biskupic also faulted Mensah for speaking publicly about the shooting.
Hours after Biskupic released his report, Chisholm announced he wouldn’t charge Mensah. The prosecutor said Mensah would be able to successfully argue he acted in self-defense.
The decision triggered another round of protests Wednesday night. Some demonstrators broke windows and looted stores. Police used tear gas to disperse them.
Motley said she plans to file a federal lawsuit alleging Mensah violated Cole’s civil rights. She’s also representing Gonzales and Anderson’s families but said she hasn’t decided whether the lawsuit will touch on those cases as well.
She has been trying to obtain documents from the Wauwatosa Police Department that she believes will show a history of racial bias. She filed record requests in June seeking Mensah’s personnel file — Biskupic noted in his report the only blemish on Mensah’s record is a 2019 reprimand for causing an accident with his squad car — as well as all department emails transmitted between the deaths of Gonzales and Cole that mention Mensah.
The requests also seek traffic-stop data from 2018 and 2019 that she believes will show officers stop Black drivers more than white drivers. They also seek emails related to 13 officers who were suspended in 1990 for attending parties derisive to Blacks in 1988 and 1989 and those officers’ personnel records. Motley said she wants to determine if any have become supervisors and trained Mensah.
She said the department hasn't turned over anything yet. She filed a lawsuit in state court on Tuesday to force the records' release.
She also called Thursday for Weber to be fired, saying he has “normalized” Mensah’s behavior.
Wauwatosa Police Chief Barry Weber
Weber said on Twitter Wednesday that his department “concurs’ with the decision not to charge Mensah but “hears the message” from the public. He said an internal review of the shooting is ongoing and that Mensah remains suspended. The department has taken steps to improve policing, including more training, posting policies online and requiring body cameras by January, he said.
The police commission is scheduled to meet later this month but their position on Biskupic’s recommendation to fire Mensah and Weber’s future isn’t clear. Commission President Dominic Leone didn't respond to an email.
Taleavia Cole told protesters on Wednesday that Chisholm must step down. She said he has shown bias against Black families in his more than 20 years as a prosecutor, but she didn't cite examples. Chisholm is white.
“There’s too much (expletive) he’s been sweeping under the rug,” she said.
Chisholm, a Democrat, has served as a prosecutor in Milwaukee County since the mid-1990s. He won election as district attorney in 2006 and is running unopposed for reelection in November. Chisholm said Wednesday that he understands people are angry with his decision not to charge Mensah but that won't change his mind. Still, he worried about Mensah’s involvement in so many shootings and acknowledged it creates an “incredible dilemma” for Wauwatosa.
John Chisholm, Milwaukee County district attorney
Chisholm brought charges in a 2016 police shooting but lost the case. In that instance, he charged Milwaukee Police Officer Dominque Heaggan-Brown with reckless homicide after he fatally shot Syville Smith during a foot chase. Both men were Black.
Smith was armed. Body-camera video showed Heaggan-Brown shooting Smith once in the arm as Smith appeared to throw his gun over a fence. The video showed a second shot 1.69 seconds later hit Smith in the chest as he lay on the ground. Defense attorneys argued Heaggan-Brown had to act quickly to defend himself and a jury acquitted him.
Calls to Chisholm’s office on Thursday were met with a recording that said no voicemail had been set up. No one at the office has responded to an email seeking comment.