It has been 165 days since George Floyd was murdered, sparking national protests calling for defunding the police and reallocating funds to community resources, yet Black people continue to die at the hands of police.
On Oct. 26, Walter Wallace Jr., a 27-year-old man with bipolar disorder, was killed by two Philadelphia police officers who each fired at least seven rounds at him. Neither officer was armed with a taser, despite the department’s five-year plan to supply every officer with one.
Three 911 calls were made on the day of the shooting and when officers arrived, Wallace Jr.’s family attempted to notify them that he was in crisis. Instead of being met with assistance, Wallace Jr. was met with bullets.
The incident is still under investigation, but the fact remains that Black people are being killed at a disproportionate rate by police, and police continue to mishandle interactions with people suffering mental health crises.
The Washington Post’s fatal shooting tracker reports that 158 Black people were killed by police in 2020. Of those, 16.5 percent were cases where the victim suffered from a mental illness.
Mental health resources in Black and brown communities are less prevalent and less utilized than those in predominantly white communities, despite evidence that suggests racial trauma is on the rise. In 2015, only four percent of psychologists in the U.S. were Black. Seeking care for mental health issues is also highly stigmatized, especially for Black men.
In their statements, officers at the scene said Wallace Jr. was carrying a knife. Police often cite armed suspects as a reason for firing their weapons.
However, in 2015, white supremacist and mass murderer Dylann Roof was apprehended after an act of domestic terrorism without any shots fired by police, despite him possessing a firearm. On Aug. 25, Kenosha shooter Kyle Rittenhouse walked right by police after killing two protestors with a rifle. Police officers only seem to fear for their lives when they don’t see a white man looking back at them.
In response to Wallace Jr.’s shooting, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris published a statement that spent more time condemning the looting that followed his death than mourning it. On Biden’s campaign website, under the subhead “Lift Every Voice: The Biden Plan for Black America,” the presidential candidate addresses the lack of mental health resources in the Black community and acknowledges the need for systemic change in the U.S. criminal justice system, but doesn’t commit to defunding the police or reallocating funds to other agencies.
Regardless of the election outcome, shootings like that of Wallace Jr. will continue to happen as long as armed police officers are responding to mental health calls instead of trained professionals.
In Philadelphia, a system that doesn’t rely on the police exists for situations like Wallace Jr.’s. Normally, dispatchers in the area would reroute mental health 911 calls to the Mental Health Emergency Hotline. After receiving the alert, the West Philadelphia Consortium would send out a mobile, unarmed team to assess the situation and offer assistance. However, when dispatchers are not trained to ask the right questions, or crucial information is not conveyed to officers dispatched to the scene, mental health crisis calls can be mishandled with deadly consequences.
As we seek to dismantle systems of violence, we must replace them with alternative resources and community care. Crisis response centers like the West Philadelphia Consortium must be implemented around the country and partner with existing services to make sure calls for support go to the right people.
On a local level, we can all be a part of destigmatizing mental health struggles and supporting local policies that prioritize equitable access to treatment and crisis services.