The show of force was captured on a video that circulated widely after protests and unrest gripped the city since two officers fatally shot Walter Wallace Jr.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article included photographs of a young child who had been pulled from a vehicle by police officers. The Inquirer has since chosen to remove those photos out of concern for the privacy of the family and the child.
Just before 2 a.m. Tuesday, about 10 blocks from where police had shot and killed Walter Wallace Jr. hours earlier, a woman stood on her rooftop, turned on her camera phone, and streamed a few minutes of live video that captured the unrest roiling West Philadelphia:
Crowds of people throwing projectiles at police. Officers backing away, then advancing toward them. A slow-moving SUV navigating the scene, then being surrounded by police. Baton-wielding officers swarming the vehicle, smashing its windows, yanking its driver and a passenger from the car, throwing them to the ground, and then pulling a toddler from the backseat.
For Aapril Rice, a 30-year-old who works in digital media and recorded it from her rooftop, the entire scene was “surreal,” but none more so than seeing officers scoop up the child. That, she said, was “the most traumatic part for me.”
The video she shot from the 5200 block of Chestnut Street spread quickly across social media after being shared by activists who questioned the show of force.
Philadelphia police on Wednesday didn’t initially respond to written questions from The Inquirer about what prompted the attack on the vehicle, the identity of the driver, if charges were filed, and what happened to the child. Asked about the video during a midafternoon news conference, Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw said she wasn’t familiar with the incident or the video, adding, “Obviously, we’ll have to look into it.”
On Wednesday night, the department said its Internal Affairs unit had opened an investigation into the matter.
The department remains under scrutiny for tactics used against protesters five months ago after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis sparked a national uprising, including days of unrest and weeks of protests in Philadelphia. Three city officers — two with the Police Department and one transit officer — face criminal charges in connection with conduct related to protests.
Much of the scrutiny focuses on the response on May 31 in West Philadelphia along the 52nd Street commercial corridor, where police used aggressive tactics and indiscriminately fired tear gas, pepper spray, and rubber bullets at agitators, protesters, and bystanders.
Police have since instituted a moratorium on using tear gas to disperse protesters who are passively resisting. But officers did strike civilians with batons this week and deployed pepper spray Tuesday night after hundreds of people marched across West Philadelphia. Some confronted police; others targeted stores or property.
Rice said she shot her video just after 1:45 a.m., watching a crowd of people near a Foot Locker that was being burglarized. After people in the crowd threw projectiles toward police, officers first backed away, then advanced down Chestnut Street from 52nd toward 53rd.
Two vehicles entered the scene: A pickup truck drove in the middle of the street near police, while a different vehicle, an SUV, was “trying to turn around," according to Rice.
With dozens of officers on the block, about 15 swarmed the SUV, yelling for the driver to get out of the vehicle.
Rice’s video appears to show at least two officers bashing in the windows and then one officer repeatedly hitting the driver with a baton. Officers then pull a second adult out of the vehicle, and then seconds later appeared to remove the child from the backseat.
An Inquirer photographer captured an image of police holding a young boy at the scene at the same time, and a freelance photographer captured another image of police pulling that child out of the vehicle that was bashed.
On Wednesday, the National Fraternal Order of Police posted another image on Facebook and Twitter of a Philadelphia police officer holding the same child, writing in a caption: “This child was lost during the violent riots in Philadelphia, wandering around barefoot in an area that was experiencing complete lawlessness. The only thing this Philadelphia police officer cared about in that moment was protecting this child.”
The Inquirer reached out to the FOP about the posts and requested a comment. Thirty minutes later, the posts had been deleted. The FOP did not respond to a follow-up.
The video was shot less than 12 hours after two officers fatally shot Wallace near his home at 61st and Locust Streets. It had been the third time that day that police had responded to reports of disturbances at the house, law enforcement sources have told The Inquirer; Wallace’s relatives said that he was having a mental health crisis and that they had called for an ambulance, not police.
Nonviolent protests assembled within hours of his death, then crowds descended on the 52nd Street corridor, where people set a police vehicle and trash on fire, vandalized public and private property, and threw projectiles at officers.
Before 1 a.m., a police officer was hospitalized with a broken leg after being hit by a pickup truck. Dozens of other officers were injured. Nearly 100 people were arrested citywide in connection with the unrest Monday night into Tuesday morning, most of whom were charged in relation to instances of commercial burglary.
Outlaw and Mayor Jim Kenney have pledged a full investigation into Wallace’s death, while setting a 9 p.m. curfew Wednesday and promising a review of officers' conduct during the unrest this week.
Teargassing and other methods used during the spring protests prompted an investigation by District Attorney Larry Krasner’s office and the city launched an “independent after-action” investigation. City Council also held two hearings related to the use of force, prompting councilmembers to introduce a bill permanently banning the use of “less-lethal” munitions such as tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets, and flash bangs.
City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart’s office also engaged outside investigators to conduct a review of how the city deployed resources to respond to the protests and unrest in late May and June. Rhynhart said the probe will focus on that time frame, “insofar as events that are more recent are needed to be written about or brought into for context to establish a pattern, they’ll be brought in.”
She said while her office did not independently verify the authenticity of the Tuesday morning video, she found it “disturbing.”
“I know that the video is just a clip in time. Something had to happen before that, and that isn’t being filmed,” she said, “but at the same time, the sheer force being used on that vehicle and the person inside and the damage done does raise questions.”
Staff writers Chris Palmer and Mike Newall and photojournalists Astrid Rodrigues and Charles Fox contributed.