The recent killing of Walter Wallace Jr. by Philadelphia police underscores long-standing concerns about asking police officers to deal with people experiencing a mental health crisis.
The 27-year-old was reportedly wielding a knife when he was shot and killed by officers Oct. 27. Family members claimed they called for an ambulance to get Wallace help, but instead the police came, according to news reports.
Wallace’s death came shortly after Philadelphia unveiled a program in early October designed to handle such situations. Behavioral healthcare specialists will work alongside police dispatchers to determine the appropriate response to calls about a person having a mental health emergency.
The program apparently wasn’t fully implemented in time to address Wallace’s situation. A pilot phase began in late September, according to representatives from the Philadelphia Department of Behavioral Health and IntellectualDisability Services. The agency is partnering with the Police Department to embed a behavioral health navigator in the police 911 radio room for the program’s second phase, which will dispatch co-response teams when needed; it isn’t expected to begin until early 2021.
A spokeswoman for the city agency was unable to comment because of an ongoing investigation into the matter. But it’s clear the circumstances of Wallace’s death speak to a broader problem many communities face: the criminal justice system is the de facto primary responder for handling mental health.