The attorney for the family of Walter Wallace Jr. on Friday criticized the Philadelphia Police Department for failing to follow through on recommendations made by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2015 that all officers be equipped with Tasers, saying the officers’ lack of nonlethal options during a confrontation with Wallace was among the systemic shortcomings that helped lead them to fire their guns.
Speaking at a news conference outside Philadelphia City Hall alongside Wallace’s relatives, attorney Shaka Johnson called for broad reforms in the Police Department and the city’s mental health services, saying improvements to police use-of-force policies and the way the city responds to mental health crises would be as meaningful to the family as the still-pending decision on whether to arrest the officers who shot him.
Johnson called for all police cadets to be trained to use Tasers, and for all officers on the force to be given the nonlethal devices and be required to wear them on their duty belts at all times.
Johnson also called for the officers to be fired, but added: “It’s not just about charging folks. This is about systemic change and shifting policy and making reform, so there’s not another Walter Wallace ever again in this city.”
The news conference came a day before Wallace’s funeral, and just days after the city released bodycam footage of his killing by officers Thomas Munz Jr. and Sean Matarazzo. Clergy members also spoke, as did Gwen Carr, the mother of Eric Garner, the New York man whose dying words “I can’t breathe” during a July 2014 struggle with police became an early milestone in the Black Lives Matter movement.
“I know the pain that they feel, and I know the pain that mother is feeling,” Carr said, referring to Wallace’s mother, Kathy Brant, who Johnson said was not at the news conference because she needed bed rest for health concerns.
As Carr spoke of the deaths of her son and other Black men at the hands of police, tears rolled down her face. While she learned of her son’s death in a phone call, Wallace’s parents had the horror of witnessing his slaying, Carr said.
“Can you imagine, just imagine, what trauma they went through seeing their son murdered right in front of their eyes?" she said. “There are thousands of mentally ill people that are getting gunned down every day because the police are the first responders. This has to stop. ... They are not trained to be the first responders for mentally ill people.”
Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw and Mayor Jim Kenney said earlier this week that the city and the department were working to expand a pilot program putting a behavioral health specialist into the police dispatch center to better evaluate calls for mental health concerns. Kenney also said the city was exploring options to boost funding for the purchase of Tasers to more quickly equip all patrol officers.
Wallace was killed Oct. 26 after police responded to his family’s Locust Street home in the Cobbs Creek section after a series of 911 calls made by a sister, brother, and neighbor who said the mentally ill man was assaulting his parents.
The dispatch recordings made public this week included no mention of Wallace’s mental health history, or the two times police had responded to calls of disturbances at the same address earlier that day.
When police arrived, Wallace came to the door holding a knife and walked from the home and toward the two officers, who, with guns drawn, repeatedly told him to drop the weapon before firing 14 times as he continued to advance toward them.
Family members say the officers should have used Tasers to subdue Wallace, but Munz and Matarazzo did not have them. Only about a third of the city’s police force currently carry Tasers, according to the department.
The Rev. Mark Tyler of Mother Bethel AME Church called on the city to dramatically increase the number of mental health professionals and to establish a phone number similar to 911 that people could call instead of the police in times of crisis. He praised the new police oversight commission that city voters approved Tuesday, but said more city charter changes will have to be approved to give the commission the power to hire and fire the police commissioner, have control over budget and policy decisions, and have the authority to conduct investigations, such as the one underway in Wallace’s death.
“We’re praying as a faith community for this family," he said, "but we need justice as well as our prayers.”