Judge Overrules Prosecutor to Back Criminal Charges Against Police Officer for Fatal Shooting of Black Man
Jay Anderson Jr., 25, died in 2016 after being approached in his parked car by a Milwaukee officer who told investigators that he believed Anderson was reaching for a gun
A judge in Wisconsin has ruled that a police officer's fatal 2016 shooting of a Black man in a parked car deserves a second look, and possible criminal charges, after a district attorney earlier declined to file charges.
"Based upon the totality of the circumstances, the court does find probable cause that Officer Joseph Mensah operated a weapon, in a matter constituting criminal negligence, and in so doing, caused the death of Jay Anderson Jr.," Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Glenn Yamahiro said in court Wednesday, reports the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
"Therefore, the court finds probable cause that Officer Mensah committed the crime, homicide by negligent handling of a dangerous weapon," he said.
The judge now will appoint a special prosecutor to decide whether Mensah, a former Wauwatosa officer who resigned and now works for the Waukesha County Sheriff's Department, should be charged in Anderson's death.
Anderson, a 25-year-old father, was sitting in his car in a park in the Milwaukee suburb where Mensah, who is also Black, was patrolling in his squad car for after-hours loitering violations, according to an investigative report about the incident from Milwaukee police.
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As Mensah approached Anderson's vehicle about 3:03 a.m. on June 23, 2016, the officer, having observed movement in the car from afar, allegedly believed the sole occupant was pretending to be asleep, according to the report.
Mensah said that after tapping on the car window and then engaging Anderson in conversation, he spotted a handgun on the front passenger seat next to Anderson.
The investigators conclude in their report that Mensah drew his weapon and ordered Anderson to raise his hands, "but on at least four occasions Mr. Anderson started to lower his right arm while leaning toward the front passenger seat where the gun was located."
Mensah repeated his commands for Anderson to keep his hands up when Anderson "suddenly lunged toward the gun with his right hand," the report states.
Mensah, "fearing for his safety," opened fire. An autopsy showed that Anderson, who was taken to a hospital and died, suffered five gunshot wounds to the head and one to the upper shoulder.
The shooting was recorded on video from the officer's squad car.
"I've watched that video at least 20 times and I was able to watch it in slow motion, forward, backward and frame by frame," then Wauwatosa Police Chief Barry Weber said at a December 2016 news conference, reports WUWM. "The police officer had less than one second to make a decision. A police officer who reasonably believes there is an imminent threat of death or great bodily harm is authorized by law to use deadly force."
After the Milwaukee County District Attorney's Office told Anderson's family that the officer would not face charges, attorney Kimberley Motley successfully sought the review by the county judge on behalf of Anderson's family.
The judge's finding "confirms what they've fought for, for over five years, and they are even more emboldened to see this fight is seen through," Motley said, reports Wisconsin Public Radio.
Anderson's father, Jay Anderson Sr., told reporters after the hearing, "This is justice, you guys, this is justice," reports WDJT-TV. "I just broke down and cried. A relief."
Anderson's mother, Linda Anderson, said: "It's been a long five years and I feel like I can breathe now. You know, it's hurtful that he took my son's life and we will never see him again, Jalen will never see her father again. And it's gonna hurt for the rest of our lives."
In a statement after the judge's ruling, current Wauwatosa Police Chief James MacGillis said: "Respecting the District Attorney's in-depth investigation and His Honor's decision, the legal process will continue moving forward and I want to thank them for their legal review of this incident."
He added: "I have never lost sight that a police officer accepts risks inherent with the responsibilities of the job. Nor have I ever lost sight that citizens and police officers are human beings, and all humans are impacted by rapidly unfolding, dynamic and tragic events. The law was written by people for the people and must always be objective, and as such, does not take human emotions into consideration."
The Milwaukee County District Attorney's Office did not respond to requests for comment. Mensah's attorney also could not be reached for comment.