The Milwaukee County District Attorney decided not to file criminal charges against Wauwatosa Police Officer Joseph Mensah on Wednesday over the Feb. 2 fatal shooting of 17-year-old Alvin Cole, leading to protests and riots in the city.
"In this case, there is sufficient evidence that Officer Mensah had an actual subjective belief that deadly force was necessary and that belief was objectively reasonable," DA John Chisholm wrote in his decision. "I do not believe that the State could disprove self-defense or defense of others in this case and therefore could not meet the burden required to charge Officer Mensah."
Police were called on Feb. 2 after Cole argued with another man inside Mayfair Mall and displayed a stolen 9 mm handgun, according to a letter from the district attorney’s office to the Wauwatosa police chief.
When officers arrived they spotted Cole, another man and a woman leaving the Nordstrom store parking garage. Police detained the man with him, but Cole kept running. He was pursued by three officers, including Mensah, when a shot “was discharged from Cole’s vicinity,” the letter says, and Cole “went to the ground with a firearm in his right hand.”
It was later discovered Cole had accidentally shot himself when he went to the ground.
The three officers said Cole was ordered to lay down his gun, but he instead pointed it in their direction. Mensah then fired five rounds, killing Cole. Including Cole, Mensah has fatally shot three people in just five years as a police officer.
“The consequences for illegal gun possession are significant and may have contributed to Mr. Cole’s flight from police,” the police report says.
“DA Chisholm needs to try harder,” Cole’s sister Taleavia Cole said to reporters after the announcement. “[Chrisholm] showed his bias. All these Black families walking in here to meet with you about their loved one that has been killed by Joseph Mensah and you have yet to not justify it.”
Wauwatosa officials braced for the announcement from the DA before protests began yesterday. City Hall has been shut down for three days and schools have shifted to all-virtual classes for the rest of the week. A curfew running from 7 p.m. to 6 a.m. has also been imposed in Wauwatosa through Monday.
Gov. Tony Evers activated the Wisconsin National Guard Wednesday after local officials requested assistance ahead of the protests.
At about 6 p.m., protesters upset with the decision began to march on I-94 West during rush hour to block traffic, though officers said they could be arrested for staying on the interstate. Arrests were eventually made.
When the protest began in earnest around 8 p.m., Wauwatosa officers showed up in riot gear to surround and protect City Hall but left protesters alone. However, reports from an hour later show police setting up a line and firing tear gas and pepper balls at protesters walking down Menomonee River Parkway.
A Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter said that before the tear gas was deployed, a few eggs had been tossed at officers, but the march was essentially peaceful. Wauwatosa police on Twitter said they fired tear gas to "safely disperse the group" of marchers, and that the march was deemed an unlawful assembly.
Reports then described “isolated incidents” of protesters splitting off from the main group to smash windows of several business and apartment buildings. Volunteers came the next morning to help with clean-up.
Police fired tear gas again around 10:50 p.m. to break up the crowd, and eventually most protesters decided to disperse. However, there was one report of a Speedway being looted around midnight, after most of the protesters had gone home.
What happens next?
Before the DA announced his decision, former U.S. Attorney Steven Biskupic released a report to Wauwatosa police that recommended Mensah’s immediate firing due to the “great” chance he will shoot a fourth person on the job.
Biskupic also noted that Mensah violated policies that prevent officers from speaking about pending investigations when he appeared on a podcast and spoke about the shooting in July.
Wauwatosa Police Chief Barry Weber declined to comment on the report, but said he will review the report and recommendation.
“The administration of justice demands a legal and purposeful review of the facts. That was done in this case,” Weber said. “Police officers are put into difficult situations that require a decision to be made in fractions of seconds.”
One change coming to the department, which was announced Tuesday by the Wauwatosa Common Council, is the addition of body-cameras for every officer by the end of the year. Over the next two months, the city will get 120 cameras and new video recording equipment for the police department, including in-squad, interview and booking room cameras.
Rep. David Bowen, D-Milwaukee, said he wasn’t surprised by the “miscarriage of justice” and that it is “past time for systematic transformation” of the criminal justice system.
“Black and Brown people in this country have been criminalized, they have been targeted and their cries for respect have been ignored by too many lawmakers and other so-called ‘public servants’ for far too long,” Bowen said in a press release. “A new approach [is needed] that will always put human life and dignity first, and that will not continue to easily pass off killings of people of color by police as ‘justified.’”
However, some state legislators disagreed with Bowen.
State Senate Candidate Julian Bradley, R-Franklin, released a statement saying Mensah deserves Wisconsin’s “utmost appreciation” for protecting the community.
“Justice prevailed today. Our police officers need to be able to defend themselves when chasing criminals firing gunshots,” Bradley said. “Community leaders need the ability to enforce law and order; they need to know they will be supported when fighting for safety.”
A task force led by Rep. Sheila Stubbs, D-Madison, and Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna, is currently debating criminal justice and policing reforms proposed by Gov. Evers. Bans on choke holds and no-knock warrants, statewide use-of-force standards, distributing $1 million to community prevention organizations and more are being discussed.