A Wisconsin cop will not be charged in the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Alvin Cole, whose death outside a suburban Milwaukee shopping mall sparked waves of unrest this summer and calls for the officer’s termination.
On Wednesday, the Milwaukee County District Attorney said he declined to prosecute Wauwatosa police officer Joseph Mensah, who killed Cole during the encounter in a parking lot of The Cheesecake Factory.
Ahead of this announcement, Wauwatosa schools held classes virtually and the city hall and library closed early, while businesses boarded their windows. Authorities installed fencing around the police department and the Mayfair Mall, where Cole was killed in February and which demonstrators shut down in June.
Gov. Tony Evers authorized the Wisconsin National Guard to support local police, who requested backup ahead of the decision.
A crowd of more than 100 people gathered outside the Milwaukee County Safety Building as Cole’s family and their attorney met with prosecutors. Demonstrators chanted “Indict Joseph Mensah,” “Arrest the police,” and “Say his name: Alvin Cole.” Some supporters held signs including one that declared, “You about 2 lose yo job Mensah!”
Mayor Dennis McBride told WISN the city began making preparations for the Mensah charging decision in July—before the Aug. 23 police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha. Kyle Rittenhouse, a 17-year-old supporter of Trump and Blue Lives Matter, shot and killed two people and injured a third during a protest in the aftermath of Blake’s shooting.
“After Kenosha, it just heightened the concern,” McBride told the ABC affiliate, referring to the bloodshed 45 miles south. “We’re gonna make sure we have people in place to allow peaceful protest to occur, but also to make sure people don’t let their emotions run too high and do some things that they would regret and the community will regret.”
District Attorney John Chisholm—who justified two other deadly shootings by Mensah during the cop’s five years on the force—said “there is sufficient evidence that Officer Mensah had an actual subjective belief that deadly force was necessary and that belief was objectively reasonable.”
“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,” Chisholm said in a statement released Wednesday. “With this I conclude my criminal review of the matter.”
Meanwhile, hours before Chisholm met with Cole’s family on Wednesday, former U.S. Attorney Steven Biskupic released an independent report recommending the Wauwatosa Police and Fire Commission fire Mensah, saying the cop will put the city at “extraordinary, unwarranted and unnecessary risk” for a fourth deadly shooting.
The report noted Mensah violated policy by making “public statements regarding the shootings that are inconsistent and misleading with respect to the facts,” as police are prohibited from “publicly discussing the details of an ongoing investigation of an officer-involved fatality.”
Biskupic’s report also shed new light on the moments leading up to Cole’s death on the evening of Feb. 2. According to Biskupic’s report, Cole never fired at Mensah; the teenager was carrying a weapon and accidentally shot himself in the arm.
The day Cole died, mall security called police over a disturbance inside the shopping center involving 10 people, one of whom carried a weapon. Authorities said Cole, a senior at Milwaukee’s Vincent High School, fled officers, disobeyed orders to drop his weapon, and fired shots first—a claim Cole’s family disputed.
“Cole pulled out a handgun from a fanny pack and the gun fired, apparently accidentally, striking Cole in the arm,” the independent report stated. “Cole fell to the ground into a crawl position, where he was surrounded by several Wauwatosa Police Officers. Cole was commanded to drop the gun, which was still in his hand.”
The report added, “Unbeknownst to the officers (and likely Cole himself), Cole’s firearm had become inoperable because the magazine was not attached and the bullet in the chamber had been fired. Cole did not drop the weapon.”
Cole was fatally wounded mere seconds after Mensah arrived. “No other Wauwatosa Police Officer fired at Cole during the encounter,” the report continued. “Officer Mensah was on the scene less than 30 seconds before encountering and shooting Cole.”
Wauwatosa patrol officers don’t wear body cameras, but dashcam video showed Cole running in The Cheesecake Factory lot, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported. The officer exited the car and ordered, “Drop the gun, drop the gun.”
In the footage, an officer is heard yelling, “Get on the ground. Get on the f***ing ground,” before a gunshot rings out. And ten seconds later, an officer fires five times.
The incident marked Mensah’s third fatal shooting in five years. The 30-year-old officer, who is Black, killed Antonio Gonzales in 2015 and Jay Anderson Jr. in 2016 in shootings that Chisholm also justified as self-defense. (Cole and Anderson were Black, while Gonzales was Latino/Native American, according to reports.)
Cole’s mother has called for Mensah to be fired and charged criminally with her son’s death. “We want him fired and convicted, and I’m not gonna rest until it’s done,” Tracy Cole said in July. “Do the right thing, and fire him right away.”
“If you put him back on the force, there’s going to be a fourth family, a fifth family. You all need to fire him ASAP,” added Jay Anderson, the father of Anderson Jr.
Cole’s death gained attention outside Wisconsin, too, as protests over police violence against people of color swept the country.
This summer, rapper Jay-Z’s social justice arm Team Roc issued a tweet calling for Mensah’s termination and tagged the district attorney: “How many more people must die at the hands of Officer Joseph Mensah?”
The Biskupic report was commissioned after Anderson’s family filed a complaint. The report found that Anderson’s shooting was “within legal bounds,” but raised questions about Mensah’s actions that night and in two other cases.
The report said Anderson, 25, was drinking at a bar late one night in June 2016 and instead of going home, drove to Madison Park where he “likely fell asleep” behind the wheel, with his loaded gun on the passenger seat. When Mensah entered the park’s lot at 3:01 a.m., the men were alone. Mensah claims that shortly after he approached Anderson’s vehicle, Anderson lunged for the weapon and as a result, Mensah fired four shots—three of which struck Anderson’s head.
In the July 2015 incident, Mensah and a fellow officer were dispatched to a home for a disturbance involving 29-year-old Gonzales, who was heavily intoxicated and arguing with people at the scene. The report says Gonzales brandished a Samurai sword with a 49-inch blade and raised the weapon above his head, allegedly moving “within striking distance of Mensah.” In response, Mensah shot Gonzales eight times, while the other cop fired once. “Officer Mensah was on the scene for only one minute before shooting,” and turned off his squad car’s dashcam while en route, the report said.
Mensah, who is on paid administrative leave, defended himself in July during an interview with a conservative talk radio host, saying he was “angry” about confusion surrounding his suspension, “lies that are being spread” about his case, and protesters allegedly taunting relatives’ children at his home. He said he’s received threats on Facebook, including messages accusing him of being racist.
The officer said critics are singling him out—for Cole and the other men he killed in the line of duty in recent years—because of nationwide protests following the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man killed by a Minneapolis cop.
“The city’s only focusing on me,” Mensah said. “Not to throw race out there, but it’s just kind of weird that out of all these critical incidents we have, as a Black officer, I am the only one who’s gotten suspended for a critical incident involving a suspect that’s arm[ed]. It’s confusing, and I don’t understand why.”
Mensah claimed several officers in his department have fired at armed suspects several times—an allegation Biskupic’s report refutes. According to Biskupic’s report, Mensah “provided misleading information to the public” in an effort to “minimize the significance of his own conduct then under review.”
On a GoFundMe page, Mensah’s brother Christopher claimed Mensah “has been treated unfairly and unjustly by mob mentality and anti-police rhetoric,” and that his family is raising money “to fight all the inaccurate dissemination of information and defamation of character which have been made.” The fundraising site raised more than $78,000.
In August, three men were charged after Mensah was assaulted outside his Wauwatosa home, where a gunshot was fired at the back door during a protest. According to reports, Mensah exited the house to try to talk to a caravan of demonstrators.
Cole’s sister, Taleavia, previously said her brother was set to graduate high school in spring and join her at Jackson State University in Mississippi.
Tracy Cole said her son turned 17 days before he died.
“My baby boy he was supposed to graduate from high school this year,” Cole told Fox 6 in Milwaukee. “Seventeen years old. Very intelligent young man. Wanted to go to college. He tells me, ‘Mom, I am going to do something positive with myself.’”