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Wisconsin officer charged in 2016 slaying of Black man

FILE - In this Oct. 2020, file photo, protesters and police line up in Wauwatosa, Wis., in the case against Wauwatosa Police Officer Joseph Mensah for the Feb. 2 fatal shooting of 17-year-old Alvin Cole at Mayfair Mall. A Wisconsin judge was set to announce Wednesday, July 28, 2021, whether he will invoke a rarely used process to charge Mensah in the 2016 slaying of a Black man who was sitting in a parked car. (AP Photo/Morry Gash, File)

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A Wisconsin judge charged a police officer Wednesday in the 2016 slaying of a Black man who was sitting in a parked car, taking the rare step of overruling prosecutors years after they declined to charge the officer.

Milwaukee County Judge Glenn Yamahiro charged Joseph Mensah with homicide by negligent use of a weapon in Jay Anderson Jr.’s death. Yamahiro’s decision marks a victory for Anderson’s family, who took advantage of a little-used provision in state law to ask the judge for a second look at the case.

Mensah, who is also Black, discovered the 25-year-old Anderson sleeping in his car after hours in a park in Wauwatosa, a Milwaukee suburb. Mensah said he shot Anderson after Anderson reached for a gun.

Anderson was the second of three people Mensah shot to death during a five-year stint with the Wauwatosa Police Department. Prosecutors cleared him of criminal wrongdoing in each case.

Anderson’s family asked Yamahiro to review that case under an obscure state law that allows judges to directly question witnesses in what’s known as a John Doe proceeding. A judge who finds sufficient evidence for charges can file them directly, leaving prosecutors out of the equation. At least six other states have similar statutory provisions, but attorneys say the process is rarely used in Wisconsin.

The judge said he decided that the single charge against Mensah was warranted based on testimony about the circumstances of the shooting. Mensah should have been aware that pulling his weapon on Anderson created an unreasonable risk of death, Yamahiro said.

Mensah could have taken steps to de-escalate the situation, including waiting for backup that was on the way, the judge said.

Anderson’s behavior was consistent with someone who was intoxicated, had been asleep and was trying but having difficulty complying with Mensah’s orders, Yamahiro said.

The evidence did not back up Mensah’s claims that Anderson was pretending to be asleep or that Anderson lunged for his weapon, the judge said.

He ordered a special prosecutor to be appointed to handle the case.

Mensah joined the Wauwatosa Police Department in 2015. That year he fatally shot Antonio Gonzales, who identified as Latino and American Indian. Prosecutors said Gonzales refused to drop a sword.

The Anderson shooting came the next year. Then, in 2020, Mensah fatally shot 17-year-old Alvin Cole as Cole fled from police during a disturbance in a mall. Mensah said he shot Cole, who was Black, after he pointed a gun at him. That set off months of protests. Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm’s decision not to charge him in that shooting led to more protests in Wauwatosa in October.

Mensah remained under pressure ever after being cleared in Cole’s death and resigned in November. He collected a $130,000 severance payment and now works as a Waukesha County deputy.

The Anderson family’s attorney, Kimberley Motley, also represents the Gonzales and Cole families. She said she is considering invoking the John Doe process for them.