MILWAUKEE — Joseph Mensah, the Wauwatosa police officer who has been suspended since July in the aftermath of his third fatal shooting, is resigning from the department effective Nov. 30.
The Wauwatosa Common Council entered into a separation agreement with Mensah Tuesday night.
Mensah, who has been suspended since July 15, has shot and killed three people in the line of duty in the last five years. All three of those shootings have been ruled justified self-defense by the Milwaukee County District Attorney's Office, including the most recent one in February.
But Mensah remained suspended by the Wauwatosa Police and Fire Commission after a complaint was filed by the family of Jay Anderson Jr., whom Mensah fatally shot in a Wauwatosa park in 2016.
The city is asking the commission to meet as soon as possible to dismiss the charges pending against Mensah.
Before the resignation was announced, a hearing before the police and fire commission was recently scheduled for Dec. 16 in which Mensah would have had the opportunity to regain his job.
"Now is the time for all of us to come together and heal," Wauwatosa Mayor Dennis McBride said.
Investigator had earlier called for Mensah to be fired
The commission was the only panel that could fire Mensah. But others have weighed in throughout the year.
On the same day that Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm cleared Mensah of any criminal wrongdoing in his third fatal shooting, an independent investigator hired by the commission recommended that Mensah be fired.
Steven Biskupic wrote in his report released Oct. 7 that the potential for a fourth fatal shooting by Mensah "creates an extraordinary, unwarranted and unnecessary risk to the Wauwatosa Police Department and the City of Wauwatosa."
He said there was "just cause" for Mensah to be fired since he made "inconsistent and misleading" public statements about the shootings, which violated a department policy and which could compromise his ability to testify in court.
Three months earlier, the common council passed a resolution calling for the removal of Mensah. The next day, the police and fire commission suspended him.
Mensah later filed a lawsuit in Milwaukee County, contesting there wasn't "just cause" for his suspension. Mensah's attorney, Jonathan Cermele, said in advance of the December hearing that Mensah would have been "completely capable" of performing his duties as an officer and that suspending him violates his due process because "one simply cannot be disciplined for an act that has yet to occur."
Protests erupt in Wauwatosa
In the aftermath of the third fatal shooting, protesters for months took to the streets calling for justice and for Mensah's removal.
The protests locally picked up steam after George Floyd was killed when a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck while in custody. Protesters marched and forced the closure of Mayfair mall as well as The Cheesecake Factory, the location of the most February fatal shooting. They also took their message to Wauwatosa City Hall, often with peaceful demonstrations.
But tensions continued to boil over and confrontations and standoffs with police soon reached a tipping point.
Mensah was the target of one protest in August when police say he was physically assaulted and a single shotgun round was fired into the house after a group of 50 to 60 people gathered there.
Three people have since been charged in that incident.
In the days that followed, unrest intensified as protesters often encountered police, sometimes leading to arrests.
That week, Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner offered to send in federal agents to help bring "peace and tranquility" to Wauwatosa, a city he said was "teetering on a crisis." McBride declined the offer.
Unrest following the decision on the Cole shooting
Then came Oct. 7 when Chisholm decided not to charge Mensah with a crime in the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Alvin Cole on Feb. 2 in the Mayfair mall parking lot.
Cole was shot five times by Mensah after he fled from police following a disturbance inside the mall.
According to Biskupic and Chisholm's reports, Cole was seen with a gun inside the mall and then pulled out a handgun, which was determined to be stolen, from a fanny pack and as he was running “the gun fired, apparently accidentally, striking Cole in the arm.”
Cole then fell to the ground into a crawl position, where he was surrounded by several Wauwatosa police officers. The officers and likely Cole did not realize his gun had become inoperable because the magazine was not attached and the bullet in the chamber had been fired.
According to Mensah, Cole pointed the gun at him “and fearing for his personal safety," Mensah fired his gun at Cole.
Chisholm ruled "there is sufficient evidence that Officer Mensah had an actual subjective belief that deadly force was necessary and that belief was objectively reasonable. Chisholm didn't believe the state could disprove self-defense and therefore could not meet the burden required to charge Mensah.
That decision set off nights of protests throughout the city. Anticipating this, McBride had issued a curfew for five days. Wauwatosa schools closed, businesses were boarded up and the police department was surrounded by a metal fence in anticipation of civil unrest. The National Guard was also called in and stationed at Mayfair.
On the first night of protests, around 10 businesses along North Avenue were vandalized.
Businesses were spared other nights, but protesters out after curfew were at times met with pepper balls and tear gas. Sixty-eight people were arrested during the curfew, including Cole's mother and sisters. Kimberley Motely, the attorney for Tracy Cole, Alvin's mother, previously said they were "strongly considering" a lawsuit against the city in response to the arrest. Tracy Cole required medical treatment.
Some in the city supported McBride's curfew, while others were critical of it. But the mayor said his goal was to protect the city.
"We had credible threats that people were threatening to burn down Mayfair and burn down Wauwatosa and other acts of violence," McBride said during a news conference in October after the curfew ended. "We saw what happened in Kenosha and Portland and Louisville, and we wanted to make sure none of those things happened in Wauwatosa."
In Kenosha, buildings were destroyed after being set on fire after Jacob Blake was shot seven times in the back by a police officer. Later that week, 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse shot and killed two people and injured a third during protests. Rittenhouse, from Antioch, Illinois, faces homicide charges from the Aug. 25 shootings.
Mensah's first two shootings
Mensah's shootings have been a focal point in Wauwatosa for five years.
The first was on July 16, 2015, when Mensah, along with officer Jeffrey Newman, shot 29-year-old Antonio Gonzales. The shooting came about seven months after Mensah was hired by the department. Gonzales was wielding a sword and refused to drop it when the officers arrived to an apartment, according to police. Mensah fired his weapon eight times because he feared for his safety and the safety of two other citizens on the scene, a review said. Gonzales had a blood alcohol content of .255.
Less than a year later, Mensah was again involved in a fatal shooting. He was alone this time while patrolling Madison Park during the overnight hours.
On June 23, 2016, dashcam video from Mensah's squad shows the officer shooting into Anderson's parked. Anderson was sleeping in his car at 3 a.m., but when Mensah approached the vehicle, he said he saw Anderson reaching for a gun. Anderson's family disputes that Anderson lunged for the legally owned loaded gun.
Mensah fired into Anderson's car six times, four of which struck Anderson.
In his report, Biskupic found that Mensah did not act against department rules in the fatal shooting but he outlined concerns, including Mensah previously calling the events "hazy." There also remained "ambiguity" over Anderson’s intention.
After Chisholm didn't issue any charges against Mensah in this case, Anderson's family sought a federal review for a civil rights violation. In February 2017, the U.S. Attorney's Office for Eastern Wisconsin declined to prosecute Mensah.
As the Cole case was gaining attention in the aftermath of the third shooting, Anderson's case returned to the spotlight as the family issued a complaint against Mensah this summer.
Now, only weeks before Mensah could have argued for his job back, something he has said he wanted, he is leaving Wauwatosa after five years.
Mensah resigning but 'fight not over' for families
The common council discussed the terms of the separation agreement in closed session for more than an hour Tuesday night.
The council accepted the terms of the separation agreement with 11 yes votes, and two "present" votes made by Aldermen Jason Wilke and Michael Walsh.
In a news release, McBride said it's time for the city to heal.
"We've made substantial progress during 2020, and in the coming year we'll continue to focus on positive change for our community," McBride said. "As before, I'm committed to working with the Common Council, the city's Equity and Inclusion Commission, and members of the public to make that happen."
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Soon, all Wauwatosa police officers will be wearing body cameras, a move accelerated by the recent events in the city.
After learning the news of Mensah's resignation, Motley, who represents the families of the three individuals Mensah has killed, said "this fight is far from over.”
Motley said the resignation is long overdue and is calling for the city to “fully disclose the terms of its agreement with Joseph Mensah to the public.”
"The families of Alvin Cole, Jay Anderson, Jr. and Antonio Gonzales will continue to fight for justice," Motley said.
Follow Evan Casey on Twitter @ecaseymedia.
This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Wisconsin cop who killed three people in the last five years resigning