Walter Wallace Jr.'s Death Raises Questions About Police Response To Mental Health Crises
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf mobilized the National Guard to respond to the violence that broke out during protests in Philadelphia Tuesday night following the recent police killing of a Black man.
Walter Wallace Jr., 27, was shot and killed by police officers who responded to an emergency call Monday afternoon. Wallace’s family says he was in the midst of a mental health crisis.
“Police officers are trained to defuse and de-escalate situations, or they should be trained to defuse and de-escalate situations. There could have been something else done before you take a person’s life,” Wallace’s cousin Sam White told NBC10 Philadelphia.
Professor Alex Vitale, author of “The End Of Policing,” agrees, calling it a “systemic problem that goes so far beyond this one case.” The coordinator of the Policing & Social Justice Project at Brooklyn College says in the U.S., between a quarter and half of people killed by police are experiencing a mental health crisis.
Folks dealing with mental health crises have been rendered vulnerable, Vitale says, thanks to gutted community-based mental health systems. And when armed police show up at a scene to assist, he says it “too often … leads to these terrible outcomes.”
Police on the scene of Wallace’s psychological episode should have kept their distance and waited for an ambulance to arrive, he says. Given that Wallace’s mother was present, trying to de-escalate the situation and not in immediate danger, the officers could have strategically retreated, he says, “but instead, they have this force neutralization mindset that unfortunately leads actually to the escalation of violence.”
Philadelphia Police Chief Danielle Outlaw acknowledged that a program designed to put a mental health professional in the dispatch room when a 911 call comes in is still in its infancy and wasn’t in place for this call.
Vitale says while police need to reevaluate intervening in every call, the bigger question — and solution — lies in the hands of the city’s top politicians.
Political leadership in Philadelphia has refused to fund non-police based mental health services and crisis response teams, he says. Other U.S. cities have been rapidly implementing them, considering recent nationwide calls to reduce law enforcement’s role in crisis calls and the success of some robust public safety programs such as CAHOOTS in Eugene, Oregon, he says.
CAHOOTS, an acronym for Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets, is a non-police mental health response built into the 911 system. In 2019, CAHOOTS went on 2,400 calls and needed police backup in less than 1% of cases, Vitale says.
But with many departments across the country still lacking mental health response teams and training, police are often the only resource for people to call in difficult situations. For this to change, city councils and mayors need to get on board and overhaul the notion that police are the be-all and end-all to our problems, he says.
Plus, creating community mental health services is crucial to decreasing the amount of crisis calls in the first place, he says. It’s more important now than ever: The American Psychological Association issued a 2020 survey on mental health and found the country is “facing a national mental health crisis that could yield serious health and social consequences for years to come.”
Earlier implementation of non-police public health strategies could have changed how the situation unfolded Monday in Philadelphia, he says, as Wallace was a man with a history of dealing with mental health challenges.
“If those challenges had been addressed more successfully, then this entire episode might never have happened,” he says.
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
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