‘You change police culture, you change American culture’: Police officers choose sides on killing of Walter Wallace Jr.

Marquise Francis
·National Reporter & Producer
·9-min read

On Monday, Oct. 26, Walter Wallace Jr., a 27-year-old Black man who suffered from bipolar disorder, was fatally shot by Philadelphia police officers as he was walking toward them. He was apparently experiencing a mental health crisis and was wielding a knife.

Wallace’s family had called an ambulance for assistance before the killing, but police arrived first. Cellphone video of the encounter, which has since gone viral, has raised new questions about the role of the police when engaging individuals with mental health issues. The question that most often arises: Was everything done to de-escalate Wallace’s encounter with police?

“Police are not trained to deal with folks with mental health issues,” Kirk Burkhalter, a former 20-year New York Police Department detective, told Yahoo News in a video interview. “It takes years for one to complete that form of training.”

What happened to Wallace was a consequence of dispatching only police officers to the scene, rather than police and a mental health professional, Burkhalter, 58, argued.

“What amount of resources are worth one human life?” he asked. “And the answer is: no amount of resources.”

Burkhalter, who currently serves as a Professor of Law at the New York Law School, acknowledged that most police officers in a comparable situation would probably react in the same way, and challenged the heads of police departments to avoid putting officers in this position at all.

“There was no need for the police to be in this situation,” he said. “I'm not saying the police should not respond. They are our first responders. … However, there should be a response with other folks: first and foremost, mental health professionals.”

Walter Wallace Jr. (Credit: CBS Philly)
Walter Wallace Jr. (Credit: CBS Philly)

Inadequate mental health intervention has been shown to lead to fatal law enforcement encounters. Adults with severe mental illness account for one in four people killed in police encounters, according to a 2015 report from the Treatment Advocacy Center, a national nonprofit organization based in Arlington, Va. Individuals with untreated mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed in an encounter with law enforcement than other civilians. Meanwhile, individuals with serious mental illness account for only 3 percent to 5 percent of violent acts, according to the Health and Human Services Department.

Shaka Johnson, an attorney for the Wallace family, said at a news conference Tuesday that Philadelphia police officers failed in their preparation for encountering Wallace, whose mother had warned them of her son’s mental breakdown.

"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 said.

Police officials said they could not confirm what information had been given to the responding officers, according to the Associated Press. However, Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw acknowledged that neither officer on the scene had a taser or similar device at the time of the shooting, adding that the department has asked for funding to equip more officers with such devices. Outlaw also noted that the department has no mental health unit.

"We don’t have a behavioral health unit, which is sorely needed," she said. "There’s clearly a disconnect on our end, in terms of knowing what’s out there."

Outlaw has pledged to release 911 tapes and body camera footage once these have been shared with Wallace's family. The Philadelphia police department did not respond to a request for comment from Yahoo News.

Scene from protests in Philadelphia near the location where Walter Wallace, Jr. was killed by two police officers. (Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images)
Scene from protests in Philadelphia near the location where Walter Wallace, Jr. was killed by two police officers. (Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images)

Wallace, a father of nine, had been expecting to welcome a baby this week with his wife, Dominique Wallace. Now, Wallace’s family is left confused, hurt and traumatized by the way the ordeal unfolded.

“It’s in my mind,” Walter Wallace Sr. said Tuesday. “I can’t even sleep at night. I can’t even close my eyes.”

In reaction to the video and the fallout from the shooting, Zeek Arkham, a Black police officer in New York state, shared his views on the encounter in a tweet that has since gone viral.

“I’m Black. I’m a cop. I’ve also had hours of de-escalation training,” he tweeted on Tuesday. “With that said: No matter your color, mental status, prior condition, or mood, if you run at me with a knife, I will shoot you. Many times. The end. #Philadelphia #phillyriots #BlueLivesMatter.”

In a follow-up interview with Yahoo News, Arkham, 42, expanded on his point of view.

“When he's swinging the knife around, there's no way to de-escalate something like that,” he said. “If he's already decided he's going to be violent, he's already decided that something's going to happen. I don't know of any way you can talk someone down from that, aside from giving them multiple commands to drop their weapons. ... I believe the cops did everything they could.”

While many Twitter users agreed with Arkham, others criticized the idea that nothing else could have been done.

Another Black officer from a police department in Southern California, who agreed to speak to Yahoo News on condition of anonymity, said the video of the encounter showed that the officers put their profession ahead of their humanity, adding, “Too many cops get that mixed up.”

“When I saw the video and I heard about it, it was absolutely disturbing to me,” the veteran officer told Yahoo News. “As cops, we don’t like to Monday night quarterback other cops … [but] what I saw on video was a whole bunch of cops who didn’t know what they were doing and didn’t have a plan. They’re running around the car like it was a merry-go-round. In my 14 years, you don’t go into a situation like this without a plan.”

The officer added that a proper plan would have involved at least a taser, or another form of nonlethal weapon, which the officers in Philadelphia did not have. He also emphasized the need for more mental health services, which are severely underfunded nationwide.

“Monday through Friday, we are the mental health services, the homeless outreach services and more,” the officer said. “It’s a lot.”

A demonstrator protesting the fatal police shooting of Walter Wallace Jr. wears a hoodie with a photo of Trayvon Martin on the backside. (Photo by Joshua Lott/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
A demonstrator protesting the fatal police shooting of Walter Wallace Jr. wears a hoodie with a photo of Trayvon Martin on the back. (Photo by Joshua Lott/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Crystal Navarro, the clinical director at Rise Above the Disorder, a non-profit dedicated to making mental health care accessible to everyone, says that, “Fear can be a product of ignorance”.

“About 1 in 5 people in the U.S. struggle with mental illness,” Navarro, 25, told Yahoo News. “Our first responders, especially police officers, need to be trained by mental health professionals to understand those with mental illness, [including education] about different disorders, the symptoms, and how to best approach and treat people with each.”

“Let's say I'm having a panic attack,” Navarro continued. “I might be curled up and swaying, heart racing, my vision is magnified. I can't manage to think straight and I am completely vulnerable with fear and unable to use my words. ... I wouldn't be able to tell them to put the gun down. The next thing I could do is motion or try to stop them myself. Given my inability to speak or think straight, I might unintentionally rush at the person out of desperation. The person holding the gun may have never experienced a panic attack. They might not even know what that is. They just think I'm rushing over to take the gun and attack them and release fire.”

Arkham added that he understands the need to de-escalate tense situations and to increase resources available to the police, including mental health professionals. In his view, however, the central issue for a police officer is making it back home safely. In other words, it’s about “blue lives matter,” he said, in reference to the motto that police advocates have adapted from the Black Lives Matter movement.

“Blue lives matter isn't just about skin color,” said Arkham. “It's about what's in your heart. I've had partners of many different races, backgrounds, religions, creeds and orientations. We make an oath to each other that we're both going home. You watch your partner's back, and he watches yours.”

Arkham said he believes Black lives matter, but he argues that this needs to include all Black lives: Not only those killed by law enforcement, but also those who are living disadvantaged lives, many of whom he says he tries to help.

Burkhalter, the former NYPD detective, sees the “blue lives matter” moniker as a distraction.

“There would be no one saying blue lives matter or all lives matter had not there not been a Black Lives Matter movement,” he said. “So it's somewhat of an antagonistic phrase. Of course blue lives matter. I was a cop for 20 years. The lives of police officers matter. I don't believe that is at issue. And I don't believe that you have a large swath of the public who are going around thinking that the lives of police do not matter. The issue here is the proliferation of killings of Black persons at the hands of law enforcement.”

He added. “The slogan Black Lives Matter, the movement, was meant to bring attention to that particular aspect. There is no deficit of sympathy in this country for police officers who are being harmed — and rightly so.”

Demonstrators protest the fatal police shooting of Walter Wallace Jr. on October 27, 2020 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Joshua Lott/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Demonstrators in Philadelphia on Oct. 27 protest the fatal police shooting of Walter Wallace Jr. the day before. (Photo by Joshua Lott/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The officer from Southern California shared these sentiments.

“I don’t believe in blue lives matter,” the officer said. “Blue lives came after Black Lives Matter. It’s a story of inclusion not exclusion. … To other cops, we’re all just cops. But things are different for me outside of this uniform.”

The officer said that once he leaves work and changes out of his uniform, he’s subject to the same kind of profiling as any other Black man, if he’s stopped by another police officer.

“That’s my problem with blue lives matter,” he said. “When you are off, you don’t have the complexion to get a break. Ultimately, you change police culture, you change American culture.”

Cover thumbnail photo illustration: (Photo Illustration: Yahoo! News; Photos: Mark Makela/Getty Images(3))

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