The Philadelphia Inquirer: Opinion: After Walter Wallace Jr.'s killing, Philly police need transparency and change
Wednesday, October 28, 2020
Councilmember Jamie Gauthier
Walter Wallace Jr. was 27 years old. He was a father, a twin brother, and a son. He was beloved by his friends and neighbors. He was a Black man who struggled with lifelong mental health challenges. And Monday, he was shot and killed by police, steps away from his mother as she begged officers to lower their weapons.
After the summer we’ve had, with people taking to the streets in cities around the country demanding racial justice, and with all the promises and platitudes from local and national leaders — it’s unfathomable for this to have happened. Our city is reeling.
Part of the incident was captured on video, which has gone viral and drawn outrage nationwide. All eyes are on Philadelphia right now. So, what are we going to do? How will we respond in a way that reflects the gravity of this situation, creates accountability, and ultimately leads to justice?
First, I am calling on the Philadelphia Police Department to release the body camera footage of the officers involved. The public deserves a transparent and honest accounting of what happened.
Second, officers need more intensive training on de-escalation techniques and use of nonlethal weapons. Things didn’t need to play out this way. Resorting to the use of a service weapon should be the absolute last resort for any officer.
Third, as a city, we must immediately ramp up investments in mental health supports for first responders and the communities they serve. The average police officer is not equipped to respond appropriately to mental health calls — yet we continue to send them to the scenes of these incidents. According to the ACLU, in 25% to 50% of cases where an individual is killed by a police officer, the victim was in the midst of a mental health crisis. Far too often, a mental health episode becomes a death sentence for these individuals. This is the ultimate miscarriage of justice: responding with force in a situation that calls for care and compassion.
Just a few weeks ago, the city announced the hiring of a clinically trained behavioral health professional, who can help direct 911 calls that involve someone in mental or emotional distress. We need efforts like these to be expanded with expediency.
Fourth, officers serving Black communities need to be able to recognize the humanity of Black people and acknowledge the history of state violence against them. I cannot for the life of me imagine how the two officers involved in Monday’s incident saw Mr. Wallace. As officers sworn to protect and serve the public, they should have seen him as a human being deserving of compassion. But they treated him in a way that suggests they did not value his life, and that is at the root of too many deaths of Black people at the hands of police.
These officers aren’t from Cobbs Creek and were likely unfamiliar with the block. To be effective at their jobs, it is critical for police to know the people, places, and the culture of the communities they serve. Current officers should receive more intensive antibias training, and these issues should become considerations of the hiring process for new recruits.
Incidents like these further do not help Philadelphia in our efforts to quell the gun-violence epidemic. Unnecessary deaths of Black people at the hands of police feed into the tension that already exists in our neighborhoods. They make communities not want to cooperate with the police, and they encourage people to take justice into their own hands. Furthermore, statements like the one issued by FOP president John McNesby are representative of everything that’s wrong with police culture, abhorrent in the claim that lethal force was necessary to keep our community safe. All police, from beat cops all the way up to the commissioner, have to be proactive about changing that culture and denouncing that behavior.
Finally, this tragedy is a crystal-clear example of why Philadelphians must vote yes on Ballot Measure 3. If approved, this would create a Citizens Police Oversight Commission for our city — which would give us more power and a louder voice in advocating for justice in situations like these.
We cannot allow Walter Wallace Jr.'s death to be in vain. Our city’s leaders must carry out a speedy investigation, enact accountability measures, and take immediate steps to end police violence once and for all.