By Margo Kirchner
The mother of a man killed by police after she called to ask for a wellness check on her mentally ill son put it bluntly:
“How could you as a parent not blame yourself for that phone call?”
Toni Biegert's son Joseph was shot by police in 2015. She and others — family members of nine men killed by officers — testified recently before a subcommittee of the Assembly Speaker’s Task Force on Racial Disparities. The committee wanted specifically to hear from families impacted by disparities in law enforcement.
Joseph suffered from depression, and after Toni spoke with him by telephone that day in 2015 she worried that he would take too much medication, as he had threatened that previously. Toni said she could not get across Green Bay fast enough to get to Joseph herself.
When police arrived, Joseph, age 30, let them in and was cooperative, Toni said. Police checked for weapons but found none, she stated.
The officers decided to take Joseph into custody and when they patted down his pelvic area he reacted and pulled away. The scene then became chaotic, said Toni. Police took Joseph to the ground, punched him, and hit him with a baton. Toni said the police version of the scene includes Joseph dragging officers to the kitchen, where he obtained a knife from a butcher block and grazed an officer’s arm with it. Police then shot Joseph nine times.
Toni said she will never know the facts, emphasizing that “Joseph’s not here to tell his side of the story.”
Toni testified that her life will never be the same. She asked subcommittee members to put themselves in her shoes as the parent who reached out “to have someone just check on your child and he’s dead now.”
She questioned why police would take her son down and punch him merely because he pulled back when touched. In her opinion they should have calmed him down.
Joe’s only crime was that he suffered from mental illness, she said.
Toni called for mandatory crisis intervention training, or “CIT,” for every police officer, because one in five people suffers from mental illness. She charged that the officers who shot her son escalated the situation from the beginning of the encounter and that CIT could have affected the outcome.
Toni indicated that in response to her demands for mandatory CIT she has been told that no funding exists for it, and CIT remains a voluntary program. She questioned why CIT and compassion are not part of police academy training.
“Police officers need to know how to interact with people who are suffering” with mental illness, she said.
“At the end of the day, my son shouldn’t be dead,” she said.
Since Joseph’s death Toni has appeared on the news, written articles, and raised money for awareness of the need for CIT. She purchased signage space on billboards and buses in the Green Bay area to spread her message. She believes that the people of Wisconsin should learn about the need for CIT. “Five and a half years I’ve been fighting,” she stated.
Tony Robinson’s mother, Andrea Irwin, told subcommittee members that her son’s death in 2015 destroyed her family.
Tony, age 19, was shot seven times in an apartment building hallway by Madison Police Officer Matt Kenny.
A newspaper report indicated that Robinson, who was biracial, was acting erratically and may have taken drugs and that a friend and others called police. Tony was unarmed and was shot just 18 seconds after Kenny arrived Robinson’s shooting death was ruled justified.
Irwin asked that police be held accountable for their actions, “even in these moments of quick decisions.” She wondered how many lives must be lost before action is taken, “because I think that this is enough.”
“We’re in a place right now where we have an ability and duty to make some forms of changes,” she said.
The state could honor her son by adopting legislation banning chokeholds, ending no-knock warrants for drug offenses, and eliminating the court doctrine of qualified immunity, which protects officers from liability, she said.
“At the end of the day, my son shouldn’t be dead.” – Toni Biegert
Tony’s aunt, Lorien Carter, questioned why society’s first response to those in trouble is to bring in people armed with guns. “When you see a police officer . . . shooting an unarmed Black teenager seven times, that is the logical outcome of America’s policing system,” she said. There are significant racial disparities in mental health treatment and “lopsided” funding of policing over public health and other programs that actually help the community, she said.
Carter called for police forces to be cut in half, with money reallocated to community resources and assistance.
“What would the country look like if we allocated those billions of dollars to spend on housing, food, and mental health?” She implored the subcommittee to embrace a different vision regarding policing.
Sharon Irwin, Tony’s grandmother, told legislators “you have to give up your politics.” Wisconsin is now worse for young Black males than Mississippi and Alabama, she said.
Sharon referenced video of her grandson’s death, which showed that Kenny had his gun drawn from the start when “there was no imminent danger.”
Sharon said Kenny killed her grandson and lied about the shooting, but “nobody cares.”
For more than five years, she said, she has been out on the streets every Sunday raising awareness about her grandson and police accountability.
Sharon pointed to a study of the Madison Police Department recommending 187 improvements in areas including use of force, the definition of “imminent danger,” and establishing a civilian oversight committee.
“There are things that we can do to make a difference and be something else. . . . It’s the system we have to look at,” she said.
Tracy Cole spoke about the death of her son, Alvin Cole. Wauwatosa Police Officer Joseph Mensah shot and killed Alvin on Feb. 2, 2020, in the Mayfair Mall parking lot.
Alvin, 17, was a “loving kid” who went to Mayfair Mall to buy a bracelet for his girlfriend for Valentine’s Day, she said.
Tracy talked to her son that evening on the phone and he said he loved her.
After receiving calls from several people around 7 or 8 p.m. telling her to check on her son, she saw news about a man, shot at the mall, who had been taken to Froedtert Hospital. She texted and called her son but he did not answer.
Tracy’s older son went to Froedtert and asked if Alvin was there, but he was told no one with that name was at the hospital. Tracy and her husband went to the Wauwatosa Police Department and asked who had been shot at Mayfair, but they were told that police did not know the man’s identity. Two detectives asked their names and said they would call her in 15 minutes, but they never did.
Tracy and her husband then went to the crime scene at the mall. They saw Wauwatosa police and talked with someone who said that they did not know who had been shot.
The parents then went to the Milwaukee County Medical Examiner’s office and learned that their son’s body was there.
When she learned that Mensah had killed three people in five years, Tracy said, she thought “how is this man still on the force? How can that be?”
Tracy described being told by District Attorney John Chisholm that he did not think he could win a case against Mensah. She says she believes Chisholm had a conflict of interest because he said he has lunch with Wauwatosa Police Chief Barry Weber “all the time.”
Tracy also discussed a second, more recent, incident involving police violence against her family. In October, after she and her family visited the family of Jacob Blake and attended a protest, police “ambushed” her family in their cars while they were on the way home. Police grabbed her by the hair, punched her several times in the head, and twisted her arm, she said.
Tracy’s arm remained in a sling as she testified, and she removed sunglasses to show her black eyes.
Tracy said she is now afraid to leave the house by herself, and she fears for her life and the lives of her children and husband.
“I need this to stop,” she said, through tears.
She wants peace of mind from knowing that Mensah is off the streets, but “Wauwatosa is not listening to us. . . . Chief Weber” doesn’t care, she said.
Alvin’s sister, Taleavia, said police told the family they did not know who had been shot, but they already had Alvin’s name because he had been with friends who gave his name to officers. Although Alvin died around 6:30 p.m., his parents did not find out about his death until after 11 p.m.
The Cole family’s attorney, Kimberly Motley, asked for progress on nine bills already proposed. She called for firing “bad apples” like Mensah; decreasing police budgets; creating more accountability through a law enforcement standards board with a mechanism for civilian complaints; and requiring turnover in police chiefs, pointing to Weber’s more than 30 years in Wauwatosa.
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