Walter Wallace had a mental illness, his family says. Why did police respond?

Grace Hauck, USA TODAY
·7 min read

The fatal police shooting of Walter Wallace Jr., 27, in Philadelphia this week is raising questions about what the officers involved were told before arriving at Wallace's home, and whether police should be who responds to mental health crises.

Wallace, an aspiring rapper and father of nine, had a mental illness and had been taking lithium, a mood stabilizer medication, said Shaka Johnson, an attorney representing Wallace's family, on Tuesday. His brother had called 911 on Monday to request medical assistance and ambulance, Johnson said.

Police officers responded twice to the Wallace residence Monday before returning a third time to a report of a person with a weapon, police said. Two officers – who did not have tasers – each fired at least seven rounds at Wallace after yelling at him to drop a knife, according to police. Wallace was hit in the shoulder and chest. One of the officers put him in a police vehicle and drove him to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead a short time later.

His death is the most recent incident of police fatally shooting someone with a mental illness.

Daniel Prude was experiencing a mental health crisis in March when Rochester, New York, police officers responding to a 911 call pinned him to the pavement while he was handcuffed and naked, suffocating him to death. In April, Nicolas Chavez, 27, was "having a mental breakdown" in Houston when he was shot 21 times. Twenty-eight officers responded to the scene. And last month, 13-year-old Linden Cameron, who has autism, was having an episode when officers shot him, leaving him with injuries to his shoulder, ankles, intestines and bladder.

"When you come to a scene where somebody is in a mental crisis, and the only tool you have to deal with it is a gun ... where are the proper tools for the job?" Johnson, Wallace's family attorney, said.

A neighbor gathers at a memorial outside Walter Wallace Jr.'s home in Philadelphia, Pa., Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020.
A neighbor gathers at a memorial outside Walter Wallace Jr.'s home in Philadelphia, Pa., Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020.

Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw said Tuesday that the two officers had not been deployed tasers, "as is with many officers in the department." The department has about 2,300 tasers but would need 4,400 tasers for every operational officer to have one, Outlaw said Wednesday.

"It's common for officers to respond to domestic disturbance, or any type of call, with a gun because it's one of the tools that we carry on our toolbelt," she said.

The shooting has sparked peaceful protests and also two nights of looting in Philadelphia. More than a thousand people have looted businesses, dozens of officers have been injured and more than 170 people have been arrested, police said. On Wednesday, police reportedly found explosives inside a van.

Mayor Jim Kenney issued a curfew Wednesday night and called in the Pennsylvania National Guard to help protect property and assist the police. The first troops were expected Friday and Saturday.

Meanwhile, the Philadelphia Police Department was investigating the shooting and could not confirm that the initial call was a mental health call, Outlaw said. "We're still backtracking to find out what the officers knew and what was dispatched to the officers," she said.

The city of Philadelphia declined a USA TODAY request to confirm that the family had called for an ambulance, citing the ongoing investigation. Outlaw said Wednesday that she plans to release 911 tapes and police body camera footage of the shooting "in the near future," once the department shares it with Wallace's family.

Who should you call instead? Police have shot people experiencing a mental health crisis

Nearly 15% of men and 30% of women booked into jails have a serious mental health condition, the National Alliance on Mental Illness estimates. And more than 1 in 4 people shot and killed by police have a mental illness, according to a Washington Post database of fatal shootings by on-duty police officers.

Police have fatally shot more than 1,300 people with mental illnesses since 2015, according to the database. The majority of people shot were white, but a disproportionate percentage were Black. Of the more than 800 people shot and killed by police so far this year, 155 had a mental illness, and, of those, 17% were Black.

Pennsylvania accounts for 114 of the shootings since 2015. At least 19 people have been fatally shot by police in Philadelphia since 2015, according to the database. All were men, and at least 16 were Black. At least three were showing signs of a mental illness.

Outlaw said Tuesday she had been in touch with the Police Executive Research Forum to discuss additional de-escalation training for the department. "We have to adapt our training ... and we will be doing that," she said.

In police training academies, officers may receive anywhere between four and 12 hours of training in mental health, and it varies by state, according to Peter Scharf, a criminologist at the Louisiana State University School of Public Health and Justice. New recruits spend about 58 hours in firearms training and eight hours in crisis intervention training, according to a 2015 survey by the Police Executive Research Forum.

Approximately 2,700 of the nation's roughly 18,000 police departments have some or all of their officers go through crisis intervention training (CIT), known as the "Memphis model," which aims to help police recognize a mental health problem and get people to treatment, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Scharf argues that police departments need more funding to be able to conduct more crisis intervention training. But others disagree.

"A lot of people are asking – how can we train police to do a better job? But that’s the wrong paradigm. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to send a police officer," said Charlie Ransford, senior director of science and policy at Cure Violence, a Chicago-based nonprofit that treats violence with disease control and behavior change methods.

"We can’t just put in an eight-hour training and expect them to be up-to-speed with things people get degrees in."

A neighbor gathers at a memorial outside Walter Wallace Jr.'s home in Philadelphia, Pa., Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020.
A neighbor gathers at a memorial outside Walter Wallace Jr.'s home in Philadelphia, Pa., Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020.

Some police departments, such as in Los Angeles and San Antonio, have partnered with mental health professionals to work as "co-responders," assisting street cops responding to incidents involving a mental health crisis.

Other cities rely on emergency response models that do not involve police. In Eugene, Oregon, two-person teams consisting of a medic and a crisis worker respond to calls of mental health crises. In June, Denver began piloting a similar program.

Philadelphia's police department recently began piloting a program that has a behavioral health specialist in the radio room during limited daytime hours, Outlaw said Tuesday.

"This person will assist us with triaging calls to determine the most appropriate response – whether or not a police response is most important or maybe even a co-response with other providers is appropriate," Outlaw said.

The specialist was not working when Wallace's call came through, Outlaw said. A behavioral health unit "is much needed," she said Wednesday, as "there’s clearly a disconnect on our end as far as knowing what’s out there."

Outlaw and Kenney both pledged Wednesday to address the lack of coordinated mental health services.

"We have limited resources and we have a large number of people with problems," Kenney said. "We need to do a better job."

Angela Kimball, national director of advocacy and public policy at the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said the U.S. needs to focus on intervening further upstream.

"When you look at the lack of access to mental health care, it’s clear that that is contributing to people experiencing crises – many of which are inherently avoidable if you get people the right care at the right time," Kimball said. "We shouldn’t wait until somebody is experiencing a crisis. It’s not good for the person. It’s not good for their family. It's not good for the community. And it’s not the job law enforcement signed up for."

If you or someone you know may be struggling with suicidal thoughts, you can call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) any time day or night, or chat online. Crisis Text Line also provides free, 24/7, confidential support via text message to people in crisis when they dial 741741. For people who identify as LGBTQ, if you or someone you know is feeling hopeless or suicidal, you can also contact The Trevor Project's TrevorLifeline 24/7/365 at 1-866-488-7386.

Contributing: Jordan Culver, N'dea Yancey-Bragg, Anthony V. Coppola and Jeff Neiburg, USA TODAY

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Walter Wallace, mental illness: Family called ambulance, not police