'Please don't shoot my son': Man killed by police needed mental health help, family says

Erik Ortiz and Doha Madani
·6 min read

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

In the past, when emotions ran high, Wallace, 27, an aspiring rapper and father of eight, could be pacified with the mention of his young children or a song he liked. But he grappled with mental illness, including bipolar disorder, and he 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 with his history — has sparked questions about 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 renewed the focus on a wider discussion about policing and mental health and how to best defuse unstable situations.

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

The encounter was partly captured on cellphone video, which 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 continues.

"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 video will be released publicly after Wallace's family is first notified in the coming days.

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The city remains on edge. A second night of protests erupted 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.

Wallace's family members and their attorney are adamant that police did not have to resort to deadly force. They said Wallace's wife, whom he recently married and who is due to give birth any day to 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 in the day for domestic disturbances before a third call was made about a man armed with a knife.

Wallace's family has not detailed what led to the calls that day. But Cathy Wallace said that when police were there earlier, she felt as though the family 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 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 said there had been previous incidents that required calls to police. City court records show that Wallace had been in and out of the criminal court system since at least 2013 and had had previous disputes with relatives but that judges had advised mental health treatment.

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

Fitzhugh said the scenario might have turned out differently if the officers who shot Wallace had been equipped with stun guns.

Outlaw confirmed this week that budget constraints have left some officers without the use of stun guns, and she 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 officers arriving for such calls can better understand people's mental health history and respond accordingly. The police department tried to expand its crisis intervention training a decade ago, but Outlaw said that its efforts must be re-evaluated and that it needs a behavioral health unit.

Image: Protests in Philadelphia (Yuki Iwamura / Reuters)
Image: Protests in Philadelphia (Yuki Iwamura / Reuters)

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 that people are safe, said Joe Smarro, a former officer with the San Antonio Police Department who worked on its mental health unit and its crisis intervention team for more than a decade.

Just because a person has a weapon does not mean the situation requires lethal force, Smarro said, but each call is different, and the outcome 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 who was chief of police in Branford, Connecticut, said he believes training officers how to deal with different types of mental and behavioral health can make all the difference in decisions to escalate to excessive or deadly force.

But DeCarlo said communities have to be willing to fund such training and make it available regularly to officers to keep up with the advancing study of mental health.

"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 said.