Could Philly’s New 911 Mental Health Response Program Have Saved Walter Wallace’s Life?

October 28, 2020

A little over two weeks after the City of Philadelphia announced progress on a new program embedding a behavioral health specialist in the city’s 911 response center, a Black man reportedly experiencing a mental health crisis was fatally shot 10 times by Philadelphia cops.

On the afternoon of October 26, two publicly unidentified Philadelphia Police Department (PPD) officers responded to a call reporting a person with a weapon. A portion of the encounter was captured on now widely-circulated footage showing Walter Wallace, Jr. a 27-year-old living with mental health issues,  approaching, though not immediately proximal to, the two officers. They told him to drop his knife and soon thereafter opened fire. He later died at the hospital.

As the city erupted into an uprising that night, Philadelphians were left questioning whether the shooting needed to happen; to no surprise, many are resoundingly asserting that it didn’t.

“We must acknowledge that things did not need to play out this way,” wrote City Council member Jamie Gauthier in a statement. “Had these officers employed de-escalation techniques and non-lethal weapons rather than making the split-second decision to fire their guns, this young man might still have his life tonight.” Similarly, the father of Wallace, who shares his name, questioned, “Why didn’t they use a taser?”

Philadelphia’s police department has had a crisis intervention team aimed at exactly what Council Member Gauthier suggested since 2007, and almost half of its officers have been trained in crisis response, according to local radio station WHYY. At publication time, it’s unknown whether the responding officers received this training.

If the two weren’t trained, they would not have been equipped even with a taser—what’s technically called an “electronic control weapon” (ECW) and one of the tools for exercising the “intermediate force” that Walter Wallace Sr. and Gauthier believe should have been used instead of lethal force.

According to department policy, only officers who’ve completed the Crisis Intervention Team training can have a taser, a rule that a federally-sponsored assessment recommended eliminating in 2015.  “This requirement,” wrote the assessment commissioned by the Justice Department’s Community Oriented Policing Services, “conflates the two tactical approaches [crisis intervention and taser use] and limits the distribution of less-lethal tools throughout the department.”

Yet the latest directives on “Severely Mentally Disabled Persons” and ECWs have not been amended by the department to conform to the 2015 recommendations. PPD did not respond to Filter‘s request for comment.

Philly is in the process of fully operationalizing another program to respond to mental health crises with clinical specialists. On October 6, it was announced by the city that 911 dispatchers were working alongside a behavioral health specialist from the Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual Disability Services (DBHIDS) to identify calls involving potential behavioral health issues and determine the appropriate response. Again, it is unclear whether the call that led to Wallace’s death had been reviewed by the specialist under this 911 Triage and Co-Responder Program. DBHIDS declined to comment and the city’s spokesperson has not responded to Filter‘s request.

“It will connect people experiencing mental illness and/or addiction to the behavioral health system when they most desperately need care, and it frees City Police from that duty, allowing them to better serve and protect residents,” said DBHIDS Acting Commissioner Jill Bowen. “The 911 Triage and Co-Responder Program is a win for the people of Philadelphia and for the Police Department.”

But would it have been a win for Wallace, even if it had been fully operational?

Abolitionists would likely say no. For them, police should not be involved in any mental health crisis responses. Sociologist Alex Vitale highlighted such programs’ apparent inefficacy when George Floyd, a Black man, was fatally kneeled on for over eight minutes. “The Minneapolis Police are a model of Procedural Justice: implicit bias, de-escalation, mindfulness, & crisis intervention training, ‘community policing,’ diversified, & use an ‘Early Intervention System’ to identify problem officers,” he tweeted in May. “Makes no difference. Time to defund them.”

In his book, The End of Policing, Vitale shows how crisis intervention teams, similar to the one in Philadelphia, fail to protect people experiencing mental health crises. In one example, James Boyd, a man with a history mental health issues, was fatally shot multiple times in 2014 while apparently preparing to leave with officers—all after five hours of speaking with a crisis intervention team.


Photograph of Philadelphia Police Department officers by chrisinphilly5448 via Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons

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