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A community meeting organized by elected officials brought a few hundred people to a Cobbs Creek church Tuesday evening, offering attendees the chance to unpack the fatal police shooting of West Philadelphia resident Walter Wallace Jr. a day earlier.
The gathering at the Church of Christian Compassion at 61st and Locust, on the block where Wallace was killed, felt mostly like a chance for city leaders to distance themselves from the fatal shots, sending their thoughts and prayers to Wallace’s family, seated in the front row.
It also gave his neighbors the chance to ask direct questions of the officials promising to do better.
The event shone a light on the inadequate response from PPD to mental health crises, and was punctuated by highly emotional moments. Some of Wallace’s family members walked out in tears, and fights broke out between attendees.
“I’m disappointed,” said Pamela Kay Williams, a pastor who lives at 53rd and Spruce, as she left the meeting. “I wanted to hear that the officers would be fired. There has to come a point in society where we stand up and say, ‘This time, we’re going to set a precedent.'”
Wallace, a 27-year-old father and newlywed, was killed by two Philly police officers in broad daylight on Monday afternoon, with his mother and their neighbors as witnesses. The officers ordered the West Philly man, whose family said he struggled with his mental health, to put down a knife he was reportedly holding, and then fired at Wallace multiple times.
Aided by a viral video that showed the killing as it happened, the incident has sparked several large protests, and some clashes with police. Hundreds and possibly thousands marched through West Philadelphia as the officials spoke inside the church Tuesday night.
At the community meeting, several organizers and officials tried to offer services to people struggling with Wallace’s death, and explained their own plans for reform.
It was seen as progress by some — and as political posturing by others.
DA: ‘We are going to try our best to be fair’
Williams, the pastor, has a son Wallace’s age who also has mental health issues, she said. She could see herself too clearly in what happened.
“My son could have been laying on that ground because he could have been in an episode and didn’t understand direction,” Williams said. “When I saw the anguish of that mother, that affected me, because I know that could’ve been me. I’ve been there.”
She showed up hoping those elected to represent her would decry the officers, and call for them to be fired. That didn’t happen.
A parade of officials spoke on stage at the church, including Mayor Jim Kenney, Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw, District Attorney Larry Krasner, and several councilmembers and state reps. Most offered condolences to Wallace’s family and promised an investigation into the officers’ conduct.
“We are going to try our best to be fair,” said DA Krasner, who is personally leading his office’s investigation.
Commissioner Outlaw committed to bridging the gap between rank-and-file police officers and the West Philly community. “We are not at war,” she told the audience.
State Sen. Anthony Williams (no relation to the pastor) tried to make a point about racist policing by playing a video of a white man approaching officers with a knife and being met with a single shot to the stomach.
The video was so difficult for Wallace’s family to watch that they left the meeting in tears.
What everyone agrees on: more resources for mental health
Throughout the meeting, there were regular outbursts and fights among people in the crowd — especially after Outlaw revealed that the reason Wallace’s 911 call didn’t get a response from a behavioral health specialist is because there simply wasn’t one at the dispatch center at the time.
“Don’t tell me you only have one mental health person on duty,” Pastor Williams said. “Something’s wrong with that. You can’t have one mental health person on duty when you have a whole community.”
Not everyone was disappointed with the meeting’s outcome.
Dauor McCleary, a 16-year-old from Mt. Airy, got chills when he first heard that Wallace was killed. He felt pulled in two directions — he’s Black, but he also aspires to become a police officer because he wants to help his community, he said.
He traveled to the Cobbs Creek community meeting from his home looking for solutions. McCleary said he wants more resources for the Philadelphia Police Department, so it can expand its mental health services, and better respond to people in crisis.
To him, the meeting felt like brainstorming a step in the right direction.
“If we can find other resources to prevent things like this from happening, that’d be great,” McCleary said. “We can think of other ways to try to prevent things like this from happening.”