For many West Philadelphians, the shock and grief of the police killing of Walter Wallace Jr. is tinged with a terrible sense of familiarity.
Just five months ago, the teargassing of the predominantly Black neighborhood prompted outrage and a promise from officials that reform would come and officers would be held accountable. After Wallace’s death on Monday — in broad daylight, on his own street, as his mother and neighbors begged police not to shoot — those promises seem hollow for many in the neighborhood.
“They don’t want anything to be different," said Kamau Mshale, an activist and longtime West Philadelphia resident. "They just want people to shut up about it.”
Police were called to Wallace’s house at 61st and Locust Streets three times on Monday. Family members said that he was experiencing a mental health crisis and that they had asked for an ambulance. In a video capturing the shooting, posted on social media, Wallace is carrying a knife and walking toward two officers with their guns drawn. The officers back up and fire on him from multiple feet away.
In the aftermath of the shooting, furious family members, neighbors, and activists have questioned why police did not try to de-escalate the situation or use less-lethal weapons to subdue him.
“It is sadly unsurprising. We’ve seen a number of losses of this kind — it’s tremendously traumatizing for that entire community,” said Krystal Strong, a University of Pennsylvania professor, West Philadelphia resident, and organizer with the Black Philly Radical Collective, an assembly of activist groups that includes Black Lives Matter. “We know that this is what we can expect from the Philadelphia police force.”
In comments at a community meeting at Church of Christian Compassion on 61st Street on Monday night, Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw said she recognized the community’s weariness.
“It’s 2020 and we’re still having the same conversations we had years ago,” Outlaw said, acknowledging people were tired of “hearing the same thing over and over again.”
Jamie Gauthier, who represents the community on City Council, said there has been some progress since this spring’s protests. Multiple investigations are underway into police conduct on 52nd Street on May 31 and the next day, when the department teargassed demonstrators on I-676. The department has since banned the use of tear gas on protests.
But what has not happened is a true reckoning from the department with the people in West Philadelphia.
“People want to feel they are listened to,” Gauthier said. “I think we need really intense engagement in our community about how people experience police in their neighborhoods, what policing has meant for them, what they want to see change.”
The Philadelphia Police Department did not respond Tuesday to requests for information about its outreach efforts in West Philadelphia.
West Philadelphia has long borne the brunt of devastating incidents of police brutality. In a 1985 standoff between police and the radical Black liberation group MOVE, police dropped a bomb on an Osage Avenue house, killing 11 people, including five children, and destroying blocks of rowhouses. In 2014, plainclothes officers nearly killed a pizza deliveryman in West Philadelphia after mistaking him for a shooting suspect, resulting in the largest police settlement in city history.
Wallace’s death is also a reminder of why the rallying cry of the protests this summer, “Defund the Police,” remains a critical part of the conversation around justice for Black men killed by police.
Black Lives Matter has sought to divert money from police budgets toward initiatives like mental health programs, education, and job opportunities, noted Strong, an assistant professor in the Literacy, Culture, and International Education Division at Penn.
“Why haven’t we dropped the number of police and increased the number of social workers and mental health professionals?" Mshale asked. "Why is that something we’re still talking about?”
Strong joined protests Monday night that followed Wallace’s killing, and saw police use force similar to five months earlier, including police in riot gear chasing her.
Another activist, Thomas Blackwell, held a rally to end gun violence and police brutality on Oct. 18, an event that included praise for the police for protecting his event. On Monday, though, officers blocking his route home descended on him after he yelled at them that they were blocking people from getting home, he said. He tried to cover his head as police stomped on him, hitting him with shields and batons.
“I could’ve died …,” Blackwell said. “It was almost like sport to them, the laughing, the carrying on after they beat someone.”