“I got a guy that even with all he’s going through, he still wants to work. He still wants to go out and help people.” – Waukesha County Sheriff Eric Severson
In an extensive and exclusive interview with Wisconsin Right Now, Waukesha County Sheriff Eric Severson explained his decision to hire former Wauwatosa Police officer Joseph Mensah as a patrol deputy, calling Mensah a “dedicated public servant” who has been treated unfairly by those invested in “emotional” and unfair narratives against the officer instead of facts and evidence.
He said that, after reviewing former US Attorney Steve Biskupic’s report into Mensah, it “contributed to my feeling that this was a witchhunt.”
“I find Joseph to be a very dedicated public servant,” said Severson. “I find him to be a quiet, thoughtful, articulate, intelligent young man. My interview panel was very impressed with his interview and his demeanor, with his humility. He’s not the monster that people want to portray him by in any stretch of the imagination. If my family needs a law enforcement officer, I hope Joseph is the first one to show up at my house.”
He said the argument that a “particular police officer was coming to work hoping to execute people of color” is backed up by “no evidence. It’s fictitious and a fabrication by people who won’t want to accept the fact that police work is not this clean, sterile environment. Police work gets difficult. It involves trying to put people in compliance with the law.”
According to Severson, Wauwatosa Police Chief Barry Weber gave Mensah a good reference and texted Severson to congratulate him on the hire. People from Mensah’s former department were at his swearing in. “He has a lot of community support. He wants to move on,” said the sheriff. “My job is to look at the evidence. The best evidence I can find.”
Severson said Mensah will be assigned as a trainee. “We don’t need to teach him how to write a ticket or how to respond to a domestic disturbance; he needs to learn our forms. We have training to do.”
Mensah will be provided with a structured training program with certified field training personnel, supervised, and “given every chance to be successful like every other deputy. Then he would go into a normal rotation like every deputy.” The sheriff declined to be more specific, saying it’s a big county and any deputy could “work lots of different places.”
“He will be assigned in the patrol division.”
Severson used an expanded interview panel. “I wanted to treat him like anyone else but it would naïve to think I didn’t want to be careful.”
He had a team go to the Wauwatosa Police Department. They met with supervisors and with the Wauwatosa chief, three times. Severson met with Chief Weber himself. He wanted insight on “who Joseph is as a person.” He met with his past supervisor “for a couple hours.” He brought along a firearms subject matter expert who “himself was involved in two deadly force situations, one where he fired, one where he did not.” He brought along a defensive tactics subject matter expert. He brought along two senior managers and investigators. They looked at the quality of the past investigations. They had people on the interview panel who had expressed concern about the hire. He spoke to two lawyers about the ability of defense attorneys to impeach Mensah’s credibility in court based on the Biskupic report, and they said “this isn’t Brady material,” referring to a legal term regarding impeaching an officer’s credibility on the stand. According to Severson, if someone misspoke or statements were taken out of context, “it’s hard to say you were untruthful.” He said he doesn’t believe Mensah was untruthful based on that evidence.
As for criticism of the officer’s hire, the Sheriff made it clear that he won’t tolerate lawbreaking in response: “People’s right to protest will be protected and preserved by my office,” he said. “Protest means peaceable under the First Amendment and that means in my world legal, lawful. As soon as people start committing criminal violations, they can be arrested; we won’t tolerate criminal or non peacable activity.” (In Wauwatosa, Mensah has been the target of People’s Revolution protests and was beaten and had a gun discharged at him when a group descended on his girlfriend’s yard in August. Mensah has had three on-duty fatal shootings, but each was ruled justified by the D.A. and each person shot had a weapon.)
“If there is a message this is going to send, I hope it is that we (in law enforcement) have to stop apologizing for taking the risks that we take and for doing the job that the public has asked us to do,” Severson said of the hire. “I know that’s going to get twisted…What I mean is that I don’t expect my guys to forfeit their lives.” He said he didn’t expect Mensah to “stand his ground” when he was threatened with weapons in past justified shooting incidents.
“In my heart, I believe he never wants to use his firearm in the line of duty again,” said Severson of the former Wauwatosa officer, who resigned from that department in a severance agreement. “I think he will go out of his way to not do it in a time or place not needed, just like he always has.”
Of Mensah’s hire, the sheriff said, “I got a guy that even with all he’s going through, he still wants to work. He still wants to go out and help people.”
The Sheriff Says the Review of Mensah’s Past Shootings & Employment Was Exhaustive
Severson said he took Mensah’s past on-duty shootings into careful account.
“We have people who emotionally say Officer Mensah is a racist and murderer. Murderer is a legal criminal classification. If Joseph was suspected any level to be a murderer he would be charged,” said Severson. “The DA has reviewed those cases and determined the killing of those people does not constitute murder. The common denominator is unlawful use of weapons during the commission of a criminal activity used in a manner that threatened other people.”
According to the sheriff, his review also did not unearth problems with the past shootings.
“The reality is that there is no evidence to lead anyone to credibly believe some kind of linkage between any one of these (Mensah’s) deadly force situations other than the persons involved chose to arm themselves with deadly weapons and refused lawful orders by police and turned those weapons toward others,” said Severson. (Previous investigations determined Mensah said Jay Anderson was lunging for a gun. Antonio Gonzalez was wielding a sword, and Alvin Cole was pointing and had discharged a gun when Mensah shot them.)
Severson Calls Former US Attorney Steve Biskupic’s Review ‘Misleading’ & Biased
Severson said he also carefully reviewed the report by former U.S. Attorney Steve Biskupic, who acting as an independent investigator, urged the city of Wauwatosa to fire Mensah, not for the shootings (which he did not find unlawful) but for what Biskupic claimed were misleading statements to a talk radio host and because Biskupic worried Mensah could theoretically engage in a hypothetical fourth shooting. Biskupic also made a big deal out of Mensah not getting Wauwatosa Police Chief Weber’s express approval before doing interviews. But Severson revealed that Weber did know about Mensah’s interview with talk show host Dan O’Donnell an hour in advance and while he didn’t expressly give approval, he also wasn’t upset about it and didn’t tell him not to go ahead, which he believes could reasonably give Mensah the belief it was authorized. He said Weber didn’t know about another interview Mensah gave on video; Severson told Mensah he needs to approve such interviews in advance in the future.
Severson said that Mensah should have asked Chief Weber before giving a video interview, but he didn’t believe it was a firing offense: “I haven’t been shot at. I haven’t been beaten up by a mob in front of my house. I haven’t been threatened repeatedly. That’s a tremendous amount of stress on somebody,” Severson said of Mensah. “When the collective general media is against you, and people are showing up at your house, and you’re not allowed to say anything and speak up for yourself, I don’t know how I would hold my tongue. At some point, I would want to tell my side of the story.”
After reviewing the Biskupic report in detail, Severson said he came to believe the “purpose of the investigation was to find some kind of reason for the Fire and Police Commission to fire him.” In the end, Mensah entered a severance agreement and resigned from the Wauwatosa force.
He said Biskupic’s report “contributed to my feeling this was a witch hunt.” For example, the elected sheriff said that Biskupic “made a big deal” that Jay Anderson, shot by Mensah in a car in a park while Mensah said Anderson was lunging for a gun “wasn’t a criminal. It was simply a forfeiture action.” But, said Severson, Biskupic’s own report “pointed out the two elements of intoxicated use of a firearm, which is a crime.” He said Biskupic unfairly tried to “minimize” the situation and imply that Anderson was shot “because of a parking violation.” But he said, “In his (Biskupic’s) own words, the guy was legally intoxicated and in possession of a firearm; that in and of itself is a crime. He was repeatedly being told, ‘Do not pick up that gun.’ He did it anyway.” Thus, he said he felt that Biskupic’s report was “disingenuous and misleading and way biased” on that point. “It was not worthy of somebody who held a prestigious office like U.S. Attorney, and I would tell Steve that to his face,” said Severson.
He said that Biskupic also “made an an issue with the fact in an interview that Joseph mentioned he was sent to these calls, and Biskupic said he didn’t get sent to the Madison park, he was on patrol and he came across this; well, if we want to nitpick, the word call implies you were sent to a call for help. In police work, we talk about calls and assignments – that part of a police officer’s function is to check the parking lots in their patrol area for illegal activity. Joseph used the word call to lump together the two calls he was on.” He said he looked at statements like these and did not determine them to be a lie or untruthful.
“Biskupic questioned some honesty issues. We looked at that and determined whether those kinds of positions were disqualifying,” he said. “The reality is that when we look at the comments Biskupic took issues with, a lot can be said about context; meanings can be taken in different ways.”
According to Severson, Biskupic also claimed Joseph should have “corrected the interview” during an interview with a talk show host. “That doesn’t make Joseph a liar because he didn’t clarify a misunderstanding in an interview,” he said. “The guy is not under oath when he’s talking to a reporter.”
He said it got less attention that, also in his report Biskupic acknowledged that “the use of force situations that he reviewed he felt were legitimately exercised force consistent with the DA’s findings. That gets overlooked.”
As for Biskupic saying Mensah should be fired over a hypothetical fourth shooting possibly occurring down the road, Severson said, “To suggest we’re not going to hire somebody because of what he might do? That rationale means I have to fire everybody.” He said that assumption also presumes a fourth shooting wouldn’t be lawful.
Waukesha County: Mensah Application Came in Back in December
Severson said the Sheriff’s Department received an application from Mensah to be a deputy in early December. After an extensive review process, Severson hired Mensah to work as a patrol deputy on a normal rotation. When the application came in, his human resources people alerted the sheriff and said, “Hey, this is on your plate. You’ve got to give us some guidance.”
“I remember saying, ‘Treat him like everybody else,’” said Severson. “He gets the same consideration.” Severson said he felt that Mensah “wasn’t treated fairly by his Fire and Police Commission.” But he kept telling himself, “That doesn’t matter. That’s not what this is about. It’s not about restoring some fairness.” Rather, he said, he conducted a review of the facts and evidence regarding Mensah’s past employment history.
Severson feels law enforcement needs to do a better job explaining what it does. “We don’t do a good enough job explaining the challenges law enforcement brings,” he said. He said that law enforcement can not expect an officer, Mensah or otherwise, to “forfeit their life” as a condition of employment.
“We will train you and equip you and certify you and supervise you and hope you never have to use force in your job,” he said, speaking generally and not of Mensah. “But the world is not that clean.”
Severson said that he’s been told reaction to the hiring decision has been mostly favorable, but he said that he’s not afraid of push back because it makes him “less likely to change my decisions.” He pointed out that he didn’t draw opposition in his last election, unusual for a sheriff in recent years, which he called an honor.
‘Not a Typical Applicant’
When his department received Mensah’s application, Severson said they knew he was not a “typical applicant.”
“I involved a lot of my senior leadership in the department,” he said. He said he recognized there would be criticism so the decision was “going to rest with me.”
He added: “We know he was involved in three deadly force use of force situations, each one independently investigated by Milwaukee police as the outside agency.” There was also an internal review, in addition to a review by the DA and federal authorities. He pointed out that Mensah’s shootings did not cause public outcry until the unrelated death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Each shooting, “on their face, it was relatively clear that Joseph had followed use of force law as it appears in federal case law and Wisconsin law, consistent with training and standards, consistent with department policy,” said Severson.
The sheriff said that, in general, law enforcement “is dealing with human beings in high stress situations, and we deal with people who are drug dependent, developmentally disabled, alcoholic mentally ill, angry, and just evil people…some simply don’t want to do anything to jeopardize their freedoms and want to avoid incarceration. There are a lot of factors that cause people to resist the lawful authority of a police officer.”
He said it was important to review the facts and evidence in each situation. He said that some people are emotionally invested in narratives that don’t match the facts.
When he looks at any hire, he said there is a road with a “shoulder on each side.” One shoulder contains the “emotional baggage a candidate might bring that would prevent a hire. On the other side, there is emotional baggage encouraging a hire.” His job was not to consider the hire emotionally in either direction but rather to look at the evidence, he said.
Severson said a badge sits on his credenza remembering the death of a Grant County sheriff’s deputy who was shot and killed after stopping to assist what he thought was a disabled motorist. “He was murdered on first contact,” he says. He says the case illustrates the dangers faced by law enforcement.
He added: “To suggest there’s liability attached to going on calls, my answer is yeah. Everybody that carries a gun carries that same liability.”
He said that there are situations where law enforcement agencies hire people who killed multiple people lawfully overseas while serving in the U.S. military and that didn’t disqualify them. He questioned why “three” was being picked arbitrarily as the supposedly disqualifying number.
Is he worried about Mensah’s safety? “As much as I worry about any other deputy that works here. He’s going to be partnered.”
He added, “My executive team is paying attention to Facebook comments. There are clearly many more supportive than negative.” He said some of the “negative remarks are reckless. People are saying I’m hiring a serial killer. That’s an emotional argument without basis in evidence or fact.”
He added, “There’s a perception of racial inequity that has been taken to a level that people capitalize on a situation like officer Mensah. His first two use of forces went virtually unnoticed. Certainly the family (of those shot) noticed. It wasn’t until the George Floyd situation that people decided here’s a local face we can attach a racist imprint on it. I don’t have the luxury of anything but looking at the facts and the truth as best as it is represented by evidence. To measure Joseph Mensah’s law enforcement career on three calls ignores the hundreds if not thousands of contacts he had with people of color that went well, people taken into custody without incident, where he helped people in need, any outcome short of him using force no one wants to talk about that, that’s not advancing an agenda. The reality is police officers don’t come to work hoping to use deadly force. We really, really do everything we can to make sure it can’t happen.”
Severson said that, as an elected sheriff, he did not need approval from the County Board or County Executive.
“I don’t work for the county executive or County Board,” he said. He does work for the people of the county. “I have had conversations with various elected officials to get opinions, to put them on notice these are things I was thinking about doing. I don’t work in a vacuum, but the authority is mine and mine alone.” He did talk about “legal issues” with county lawyers and his executive team. He said the feedback he got was positive.