Family Says Walter Wallace Jr., Killed by Philadelphia Police, Needed Mental Health Treatment

Courtesy of the Wallace Family

On Monday afternoon, police officers arrived at Walter Wallace Jr.'s West Philadelphia rowhome for a third time that day. Relatives said he was having "another one of his episodes."

Posted: Oct 28, 2020 6:45 PM

NBC News - On Monday afternoon, police officers arrived at Walter Wallace Jr.'s West Philadelphia rowhome for a third time that day. Relatives said he was having "another one of his episodes."

In the past, when emotions ran high, the aspiring rapper and father of eight could be pacified with the mention of his young children or a song he liked. But Wallace, 27, grappled with mental illness, including bipolar disorder, and had been going to therapy as recently as last week, said Anthony Fitzhugh, a cousin.

"Whenever I've been around and he was having an episode, I've always been able to say, 'Little cuz, little cuz, come on,'" Fitzhugh said.

"It might take him a second, but if you know the things that will de-escalate, like he loves music, he loves his kids. When you start talking about these kinds of things ... sometimes it's easier to de-escalate whatever he may be going through."

The state of Wallace's mental health — and how familiar police were about his history — has sparked questions over officers' response at the scene and their use of lethal force in approaching him. His death, which comes after a series of high-profile cases of Black people dying at the hands of law enforcement, has also put a renewed focus on a wider discussion on policing and mental health, and how to best defuse unstable situations.

Family members said they called 911 requesting an ambulance and hoped for Wallace to receive medical intervention, but police arrived first.

The encounter was partially captured on cellphone video and shows Wallace getting shot multiple times in front of his mother and neighbors after officers appeared to tell him to put down a knife as he approached them. The two officers involved have not been publicly identified and an internal investigation remains ongoing.

"I was telling PD to stop. 'Don't shoot my son, please don't shoot my son,'" Wallace's mother, Cathy Wallace, told reporters Tuesday night. "And they just shot him."

Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw said Wednesday that 911 calls and officer bodycam footage will be released publicly after Wallace's family is first notified in the coming days.

Meanwhile, the city remains on edge. A second night of protests erupted on Tuesday with more reports of looting and injured officers, despite the family's call for calm. Several hundred members of the Pennsylvania National Guard have been requested to help in the event of further unrest.

But Wallace's family members and their lawyer are adamant that police did not have to resort to deadly force. They said Wallace's wife, whom he recently married and is due to give birth any day with his ninth child, had relayed his mental health struggles to police at the scene before they shot him.

"When you come to a scene where somebody is in a mental crisis, the only tool you have to deal with it is a gun. That's a problem," said the family's attorney, Shaka Johnson. "I would have a problem if my carpenter came to my house with only a hammer. Where is your screwdriver, sir? Where is the proper tool for the job?"

Wallace had been taking lithium, a mood stabilizer used to treat bipolar disorder, Johnson said.

Philadelphia police said calls were made to the home twice earlier that day for domestic disturbances before receiving a third call about a man armed with a knife.

Wallace's family has not detailed what led to the various calls that day. But Cathy Wallace said when police were there earlier, she felt like they weren't being taken seriously and "they stood there and laughed at us."

Outlaw has declined to say what past interactions Wallace may have had with police, citing the ongoing investigation.

"I think it's safe to say that once officers were on the scene, people were saying that there may have been mental health issues there," she said Wednesday. "But that's what the investigation will reveal … what was known to the officers at the time they responded, what was dispatched, how that information was shared and then how that information was utilized as it relates to the police response."

Relatives told NBC News there have been past incidents that required calls to police. City court records show Wallace had also been in and out of the criminal court system since at least 2013 and had previous disputes with family, but that judges had advised mental health treatment for him.

When the family called 911, they "were hoping and trusting that the police are going to help," Fitzhugh said. "They're not going to make that call thinking the police is going to come and kill their son."

Fitzhugh said the scenario may have turned out differently if the officers who shot Wallace had been equipped with Tasers.

Outlaw confirmed this week that budget constraints have left some officers without the use of stun guns and said Wednesday that plans to provide them to more officers must move forward.

In addition, she said, the police department needs to improve its relationships with community mental health agencies so that officers arriving to such a call can better understand a person's mental health history and respond accordingly. The department had previously tried to expand its crisis intervention training a decade ago, but Outlaw said its efforts must be re-evaluated and there is a need for a behavioral health unit within the department.

While some observers say trained counselors and not police officers should respond to mental health crisis calls, the introduction of a weapon requires a police response to ensure people are safe, said Joe Smarro, a former officer with the San Antonio Police Department who worked on its mental health unit and crisis intervention team for more than a decade.

Just because a person has a weapon doesn't mean it requires lethal force, Smarro said, but each call is different and also depends on an officer's training.

"I have talked to people holding knives and guns and have not shot any of them and I have never died, but that doesn't make me 'right' or 'wrong,'" he said, "it just is."

John DeCarlo, an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of New Haven and a former Connecticut police chief, said he believes training for officers in how to deal with different types of mental and behavioral health can make all the difference in the decision to escalate to excessive or deadly force.

"In the short term, police chiefs and officers need to talk to their communities," DeCarlo said. "We are training police officers as though they are soldiers. Soldiers have enemies, but police officers have communities."

Wallace's family said they want those responsible for his death to be held accountable. But whether that will happen has Wallace's father, Walter Wallace Sr., wrestling with his own mental health. He is traumatized by his son's death and is going to need help, he said.

"You see your son butchered, I would ask how you feel," he added.

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