Walter Wallace Jr., 27, was fatally shot by police in West Philadelphia on Monday when officers responded to a report of a person with a weapon.
The 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 to request medical assistance and ambulance, Johnson said. Police officers responded twice to the Wallace residence Monday before returning a third time.
Wallace’s death is only 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.
Police said Tuesday that officers shot and killed Wallace after yelling at him to drop his knife. Officers ordered Wallace to drop the knife, but he instead “advanced toward” them and both officers then fired several times. 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.
The city of Philadelphia did not immediately confirm that the family had called for an ambulance.
Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw said Tuesday that the department was investigating the incident. “Everyone involved, including the officers, will forever be impacted by this tragedy,” she said.
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.
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, argues that police officers should not be responding to mental health crises.
“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,” Ransford said. “We can’t just put in an eight-hour training and expect them to be up-to-speed with things people get degrees in.”
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.
Outlaw also said a new city program to put a behavioral health specialist in the police dispatch center only operates during limited hours, and that the assigned counselor was not in the radio room at the time of the afternoon call regarding a disturbance at Wallace’s house.
Angela Kimball, national director of advocacy and public policy at the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said we need 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 and Jeff Neiburg, USA TODAY