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Calls to ‘defund the police’ intensify after Philadelphia police killing of Walter Wallace Jr.

Those in favor of defunding say the police killing of Wallace is a tragic example of how their vision for policing could have changed an outcome.

YahNé Ndgo speaks to the crowd at 56th and Pine Streets as they protest the death of Walter Wallace Jr. by Philly police on Saturday.
YahNé Ndgo speaks to the crowd at 56th and Pine Streets as they protest the death of Walter Wallace Jr. by Philly police on Saturday.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

As unrest following the police killing of Walter Wallace Jr. gripped West Philadelphia on Monday, Krystal Strong looked to her left to see three members of the Africa family, part of the MOVE Black-liberation group.

Together, at a Navy Yard screening of 40 Years a Prisonera documentary detailing tensions between MOVE and the city of Philadelphia — they watched protest scenes from 1978, as demonstrators waved signs reading “stop police brutality.”

“It looked like it could be October 2020,” said Strong, a University of Pennsylvania professor and Black Lives Matter Philadelphia organizer.

The last week of death, protest, destruction, and grief in Philadelphia has reignited calls from such activists as Strong and some politicians to dramatically reimagine public safety here — some want to “defund the police,” a proposal that would reduce law enforcement funding and divert money to neighborhood groups or social service providers who can respond to some calls typically handled by officers.

Those in favor say the police killing of Wallace — a 27-year-old man shot while walking toward officers with a knife amid what family said was a mental-health crisis — is a tragic example of how their vision for policing could have changed an outcome.

Lawyers for Wallace’s family have said his relatives called 911 requesting medical assistance. In a defund-type model, police likely would not have responded to that call. A trained mental-health professional would have.

“There’s so many situations that the police show up,” said Kris Henderson, executive director of the West Philadelphia-based public interest law center Amistad Law Project, “and other people could do that job better.”

Local lawmakers are divided over how to respond. On Friday, four freshman city councilmembers said they unsuccessfully fought for deep cuts to the Police Department budget last spring spring and vowed to try again this budget cycle.

They face an uphill battle. Council President Darrell Clarke last week cautioned against calls to reduce the police budget. He stood during a news conference after the Wallace shooting with other members, calling for such reforms as establishing a citizen-led oversight commission.

But defund proponents say policing is past the point of reform. Groups such as the Black Philly Radical Collective — established during the spring by a dozen activist organizations, including Black Lives Matter Philly — have demanded the city “immediately” reduce the police budget by 20%, with the goal of steeper cuts over five years.

» READ MORE: 'We're not going to disappear': How Black Lives Matter activists are transitioning into a new season

From the shooting of Wallace to officers pulling a woman from an SUV and beating her, the events of the last week, Strong said, “proved why [the Collective] wrote those demands.”

“The city said that we don’t have a problem, that we will have a community-oriented policing approach,” she said. “But they just killed a man this week. And we should have every expectation that they’ll do it again.”

‘Defund’ in Philly?

“Defund the police” became a rallying cry this past summer after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

The phrase has also become politically fraught. Opponents have run advertisements suggesting there would be fewer police to respond to calls, though advocates in favor of defunding say others, such as mental-health specialists, could respond to calls such as Wallace’s.

For Context
"Defund The Police" is the phrase used by some activists who want governments to redirect police funding to social services or other organizations that serve the community. While Philadelphia officials didn't do so this year amid nationwide protests, they did cancel a proposed increase to the PPD's budget in June.

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has said he is “totally opposed” to defunding the police and suggested police need more funding for training.

A survey conducted by Pew Charitable Trusts this past summer found a majority of Philadelphia residents believe the Police Department needs “some reforms,” but just 14% — and 6% of Black residents — favor reducing its size.

In June, amid nationwide protests, Philadelphia officials canceled a proposed $19 million increase to the Police Department’s more than $700 million yearly budget and diverted $14 million by moving some personnel to another department.

» READ MORE: Walter Wallace Jr. received mental health treatment just days before his death. A West Philly crisis center questions why it wasn’t included in Monday’s response.

City Councilmember Isaiah Thomas said during a town hall meeting Friday that Council discussed cutting the police budget by $50 million to $140 million. The disagreement, he said, was about how the money would be reinvested.

Councilmember Jamie Gauthier, whose district is where police killed Wallace, said the progressive wing of Council will spend the coming weeks identifying the specifics.

Building a new system

Proponents of diverting funds from the police say it’s less about removing policing — the brunt of its brutality historically borne by Black people — and more reallocating money for social services and reimagining public safety.

» READ MORE: Black and Blue: 190 years of police brutality against Black people in Philadelphia

Henderson said that could mean mediation among neighbors; dispatching outreach workers to assist homeless people in crisis; or mobilizing insurance specialists to respond to fender-benders.

Councilmember Kendra Brooks, a progressive in favor of reducing police funding, said it could look like “community safety officers” who work on the blocks where they live, or sending counselors to respond to domestic violence calls. Someone has a taillight out? “Send them a ticket in the mail,” she said.

It’s been tried elsewhere, with varying levels of success. Camden in 2013 dismantled its police department in favor of a county-operated force that many say has led to reduced crime and improved community relations. Though some residents have cautioned against using the new force as a playbook, saying it was established with little public input and mistrust lingers.

And in June, a majority of the Minneapolis City Council committed to disbanding its department with the goal of transferring police responsibilities to social workers and reallocating funds to other safety services. But details for the plan, if it becomes reality, haven’t been ironed out and some members have backtracked on their pledge.

In Philadelphia, Strong said, “it is about a recognition of this historical and structural reality." She pointed to the city’s police allocation that’s 15% of the city budget — a share defund proponents say is too high. She said a new system “doesn’t look like force, it doesn’t look like a cycle of violence, it doesn’t look like endless Black deaths.

» READ MORE: Walter Wallace Jr.'s killing by Philly police raises specter of the MOVE bombing 35 years later

“It looks like mental-health support. It looks like health care, it looks like food access. It looks like schools that are funded.”

The reckoning this past summer over police brutality and racial injustice, combined with Wallace’s death last week, have catapulted the conversation from radical to mainstream, Strong said. Before May, she never imagined “we would be having a national conversation about defunding the police.”

“People are being compelled to rethink their ideas,” she said, “because the things that they thought could work are clearly not.”

Defund or reform

Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw, in her first year with the force, said last week that the officers who shot Wallace were among the two-thirds of the force not equipped with Tasers — she said the funding isn’t there.

Clarke has said said that Council is prepared to fund a plan to get all officers Tasers and training to use them.

» READ MORE: Philadelphia police had launched a plan years ago to equip all patrol officers with Tasers. It never happened.

But those who back a reduction in funding oppose spending more on reforms.

“If we keep trying to reform the police into something better, safer, more holistic,” said Henderson, of the Amistad Law Project, “we’re going to keep having this situation where they mess up, they kill someone, and they tell us, ‘If you keep giving us more money, we’ll start to get it.’”

Brooks agreed, saying the response to Wallace was “a perfect example of what community safety should have looked like.”

The rift shows why “defund” remains a long shot. Most Philadelphia lawmakers back reform efforts, which they have for years. Sometimes, reforms require more funding, not less.

The city has taken other steps this year. Council approved measures for hearings on police contracts, residency requirements, and prohibiting choke holds. Officials have promised to have a behavioral health specialist embedded alongside 911 dispatchers.

» READ MORE: Philly Council moves to diversify police, strengthen oversight, curtail stop-and-frisk

Brooks said although she believes in ultimately “abolishing the system that we currently have in place,” police reform measures are what’s realistic for this Council, so she sits on reform-focused committees. Last Monday, that was a meeting discussing police oversight.

About an hour in, the Rev. Mark Kelly Tyler, a civil rights activist, broke the news: Police shot and killed a young Black man in West Philadelphia.

He watched a video on Instagram, Tyler told the meeting, and tried to count the number of shots police fired. He stopped counting after 10.

Staff writer Laura McCrystal contributed to this article.