A few steps from chalk lines that had circled shell casings and other evidence from a Monday afternoon police shooting in West Philadelphia, family, friends, and neighbors recalled 27-year-old Walter Wallace Jr.:
A father of eight who struggled with mental illness. A quiet neighbor. An Uber Eats driver and aspiring rapper.
A cousin opened the doors of her red Toyota Camry, plugged her phone into its speakers, and played one of Wallace’s songs, “Black Hearted," then doubled over in the middle of the 6100 block of Locust Street and wept.
Neighbors and family members sat on their steps and leaned over porch railings, swaying back and forth, their eyes closed, as the song’s lyrics described police violence and the Black Lives Matter movement.
The words played out in real life the day before, when two police officers responded to a call for help at the Wallace rowhouse and then ended up firing 14 bullets at a distraught young man who they said approached them armed with a knife.
“He was a family man,” said Tasha White, who lives a few doors down. “He walked with his kids and he walked with his mom.”
“He was a quiet kid," White said. “Whatever happened yesterday, that was different. That wasn’t normal.”
Adults with untreated severe mental illness account for one in every four fatal police shootings, according to experts. Wallace fits the pattern. He was also in and out of court throughout his young adulthood, with judges regularly ordering he receive mental health treatment as he faced charges of trespassing, resisting arrest, robbery and simple assault.
Shaka Johnson, a criminal defense lawyer now representing the family, said Wallace was prescribed lithium, which is primarily used to treat bipolar disorder and major depressive disorder.
He said Wallace’s family called 911 Monday afternoon for an ambulance to help a young man in crisis. Police arrived first, he said, and Wallace’s wife told officers that her husband was bipolar. It was reportedly the family’s third call for help that day.
“Officers who are properly trained should notice certain things when they arrive at a scene,” Johnson told reporters Tuesday on the steps of the family’s home. “Especially when his wife tells you, ‘Stand down officers, he’s manic bipolar.’ ”
Wallace’s wife, who is pregnant, is scheduled to have labor induced Wednesday, Johnson said.
A journey through the criminal justice system
Walter W. Wallace Jr., named after his father, also went by the artist name “Whohe” on YouTube, often recording rap songs about issues like gun violence and the time he spent in jail.
Since at least 2013, when he was 19, Philadelphia judges have sought to get him mental health treatment. Wallace was arrested four times that year, court records show, including a guilty plea for resisting arrest that started his adult contact with probation officers that spanned much of the next seven years.
During sentencing for an assault in 2016, Municipal Court judge Marsha Neifield was insistent that Wallace “continue medication management at JFK.” The note is likely a reference to John F. Kennedy Behavioral Health Center on North Broad Street. Neifield “strongly recommended that Supervision be by the Mental Health Unit of Probation.”
A robbery conviction the following year led Common Pleas Court judge Glynnis Hill to require more mental health supervision, a drug treatment assessment, and “Anger Management [is] ordered, if determined by probation.”
Wallace was charged again in March for allegedly making threats, but his trial was delayed repeatedly, along with many city court cases backlogged by the coronavirus pandemic.
Wallace Jr. was killed Monday around 4 p.m. after police responded to his family’s home on the report of a person with a weapon. When police arrived, Wallace Jr. was outside the home and holding a knife.
The two officers told Wallace Jr. to drop the knife, but he didn’t. His mother tried to grab her son and shield him from police as they had their guns drawn, witnesses said. She pleaded for police to put the guns down, and asked her son to drop the knife, but Wallace Jr. brushed her off, bystander video shows. He then walked around a car and as he slowly stepped toward officers, they both backed away and then fired a total of 14 times, police said Tuesday.
Anthony Fitzhugh, a cousin at the family home Tuesday morning, questioned the police response.
“They were advised that he had mental health issues. I understand he had a knife, and their job is to protect and serve. By all means do so, but do not let lethal force be the means by which you de-escalate the situation," said Fitzhugh, 49.
Family members believe the officers should have used Tasers to subdue Wallace, but the officers at the scene did not have such weapons with them. About a third of the city’s police force carries a Taser, according to the department.
“It didn’t have to happen that way. They didn’t have to shoot him that amount of times he was shot,” Fitzhugh said. "At what point do you draw a line and say, ‘OK, I’m going over a limit. This no longer falls under my job description, this is murder?’ ”
He said the family was upset to see looting break out throughout the night after Wallace’s death.
“That’s not being done in his name, that’s not being done in his honor, and the family does not agree with that," Fitzhugh said.
White, one of the family’s neighbors on Locust, said: “Mental illness is in the ‘hood. He could have been helped.”
It’s a statement many in the community have made, as a fatal police shooting renews questions about police tactics when responding to people in mental health crisis.
Adults with untreated severe mental illness account for one in every four fatal police shootings, according to a 2015 report by the Treatment Advocacy Center, a national nonprofit focused on making treatment for severe mental illness possible. They also are 16 times more likely to be stopped by the police than other people. And while Black adults are more likely to report persistent symptoms of emotional distress, only one in three Black or African American adults who need mental health care receive it.
John Snook, the CEO of the Treatment Advocacy Center, said that about 20% of officer time is spent responding to crises of someone with mental health issues, according to a May 2019 report by the nonprofit.
“It stands to reason that because they have so many interactions with people who are in crisis, all the training in the world can’t solve that problem,” Snook said. “What you’re talking about is a medical concern, and law enforcement officers are not the right people to deal with that.”
Because in Pennsylvania, patients must be a clear and present danger to themselves or someone else to qualify for inpatient commitment, many people can’t get their loved ones the help they need in time, Snook said.
“You run into situations when someone has an illness that is impacting their brain, and you can’t do anything unless they get sicker and act out in some way,” Snook said. “When that happens, police are called, so those situations are really being set up for violence. We’re not responding in the way that we should, so it’s hard to expect any other results.”
Later Tuesday night, outside the family home, two of Wallace’s young sons stood in front of dozens of cameras and reporters, tall but clearly shaken. They praised their dad. “And Black lives still matter,” one Wallace boy said, tears in his eyes
Walter Wallace Sr., who worked as a trash collector for the city for 33 years, in a strong voice laced with anguish, said when he closes his eyes, he can still see his son being “butchered” in front of him. “We got good cops, we got bad cops in the system. Everybody’s got to be held accountable for what they do.”
Staff writer Kristen A. Graham contributed to this article.