Marchers protesting the police killing of Walter Wallace Jr. were met with more police

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Walter Wallace Jr. should not be dead. He should be alive, receiving mental health services, and continuing his involvement in the community.

Family members called for help as Walter experienced a mental health breakdown. Police arrived, when it should have been a crisis intervention professional. Instead of getting him the help he needed, the officers shot at him 14 times.

This is yet another instance of police murder and state sanctioned violence that underlines the glaring reality of the catastrophe of divestment in Black communities. Instead of prioritizing the support people need to thrive, leaders in city government continue to fund violent police forces. In Philadelphia, the department’s annual budget is $725 million.

Police are not only the wrong entity to help Black people living with mental health illnesses, they continue to fail in valuing Black lives enough to keep them protected.

Body camera footage released Wednesday showed one officer uttering “Shoot him” without trying any de-escalation tactics, despite bystanders and family members shouting repeatedly “He’s mental!” Shoot first, ask questions later continues to be the standard of our local law enforcement.

This continued failure, documented for decades, further elevates the urgent need to defund the police and use the money to shift resources to services that actually address the needs of Black and brown communities — and the root causes that continue to allow officers to murder Black people, in Philadelphia and around the country.

And while these officers have yet to be charged, we are calling for their removal from the force in our petition for justice.

Nearly one quarter of all people killed by police in the U,S. since 2015 had a known mental illness, NPR reports, citing the Washington Post’s Fatal Force database. Walter Wallace Jr., who suffered from bipolar disorder, is now a statistic in that database. People suffering with mental illness are 16 times more likely to be stopped by the police, according to a 2015 report from the Treatment Advocacy Center.

Forced to rely on community lists instead of city services

Walter Wallace Jr. was murdered because he lived in a neighborhood that was overpoliced, impoverished and consistently divested of community resources.

As a stopgap for people in crisis, communities have been forced to scrounge up lists like the one curated by local organization Don’t Call The Police. Our systems give us no other option. However, hotlines alone are not going to fix this. We need services and programs that are sustainable and offer long-term services. Many already exist but are not prioritized.

In fact, the people at the West Philadelphia Consortium, a mental health crisis response center, had a personal relationship with the Wallace family and existed in the neighborhood, yet never received the call or request for assistance on the day he was shot and killed.

Even worse, the consortium’s executive director John White, told Billy Penn he tried to build relationships with the police department, but was rebuffed.

Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw not only said she wasn’t aware of White’s ongoing efforts, but also admitted the police department does not have its own behavioral health department. The PPD recently rolled out a new initiative to improve responses to 911 calls for people having behavioral health crises — yet that failed too. Outlaw said the behavioral crisis specialist assigned to dispatch was not working at the time Walter Wallace Jr.’s family called.

Philadelphia needs to invest in more supportive services, not in police. This unnecessary death is yet another reason councilmembers must move to defund the police and invest in resources that meet the needs of our Black and brown communities.

De-escalation instead of stun guns

Arming police with more Tasers isn’t the answer.

Not only are Philadelphia Police not using the Tasers they have, but Tasers kill too. Hakim Jackson and Bryant Henry Jr. are just two Black men who have died by Taser at the hands of Philadelphia police.

A real solution would look like taking the same funds Council President Darrell Clarke is offering to hand over to police and investing it in the creation of a department of unarmed personnel trained in de-escalation who can be dispatched to people in crisis. We need new initiatives that directly put financial, technical and other resources into the hands of community-first and community-built programs. Our communities have the solutions to the question of how we keep each other safe.

Philadelphians, especially young Black Philadelphians, are rightfully enraged.

They have been given the short end of the stick over and over — underfunded schools and fewer extracurricular programs for young people. Philadelphia is suffering from a nearly 25% poverty rate, and Black communities are disproportionately impacted. Pew Trust’s 2018 report on poverty in Philadelphia showed “poverty rates were especially high for the city’s Hispanic residents, at 38%; its children, at 37%; and its black residents, at 31%. Half of the city’s poor were black, and nearly 60% were working-age adults.”

Yet these young people are expected to act with a degree of calm and understanding that has never been shown them. Breaking windows displays a level of restraint that shooting someone over a dozen times in front of his mother does not. It is not a comparison worth making.

Police killed Walter Wallace, Jr. but they were not in danger. In fact, they should not have been there in the first place.

We call on our City Councilmembers to do the right thing and begin to defund our police department, a clear danger to our communities, and reinvest in the solutions that we know are already working.

We can prevent another tragedy.

Ashley Henderson (they/them/theirs), also known as Kris, is a co-founder of Amistad Law Project, organizer, and attorney licensed to practice in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. They graduated from Rensselaer...