Why didn’t they use a Taser?
That was one of the first questions Walter Wallace Jr.'s family and many other Philadelphians were asking after the 27-year-old was shot to death by two police officers on Monday, setting off a wave of civil unrest in West Philadelphia and across the city.
The answer is simple: The officers who opened fire on Wallace — firing a total of 14 bullets — were not equipped with Tasers.
But they should have been, along with every other patrol officer on the force, according to former Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey.
Ramsey, who served under Mayor Michael Nutter, said Thursday that when he left the post in January 2016, a four-year plan was already underway to equip all uniformed patrol officers — about 4,500 — with Tasers, then to possibly expand that to specialized units and even plainclothes officers.
“We were getting them and cranking them out,” Ramsey told The Inquirer. “The goal was to get everyone equipped with their own Tasers.”
It didn’t happen.
The process apparently stalled after Ramsey’s departure and fell far short of the original target. Today, about 2,300 Philadelphia officers now carry Tasers, leaving thousands of officers on the street without one.
“They didn’t stick to the four-year plan for whatever reason,” Ramsey said, adding that it might have been due to a lack of funding.
In the aftermath of Wallace’s death, city officials are scrambling to address the Taser shortage, with Council President Darrell Clarke telling reporters Wednesday that Council is prepared to fund the department’s current five-year $14 million plan to equip all officers with Tasers, which are designed to incapacitate someone with electrified barbs.
Wallace, who had a history of mental illness, was holding a knife and approaching police when officers shot him in front of his West Philadelphia home on Monday. Police had been called to his house dozens of times in recent months, including twice earlier that day alone. A family attorney said relatives had called 911 that afternoon asking for an ambulance to respond to what they described as a mental health crisis, not for police assistance.
Wallace’s death came a year after a strikingly similar incident in which a Taser might have been a viable option. In September 2019, an officer shot Darin Lee, who had a long history of mental illness and was refusing to drop a box cutter.
Videos posted on Instagram showed Lee, 31, walking toward a group of officers. Residents are heard telling police they know Lee and one person yells: “Just Tase him!”
None of the officers was equipped with a Taser.
That, despite a major U.S. Justice Department study in 2015 that recommended Philadelphia equip all of its patrol officers with Tasers.
The study, which reviewed use-of-force incidents between 2007 and 2013 in which Philadelphia police officers faced an armed person or someone who had fired a gun, found that “as more ECWs [electronic control weapons] have been distributed throughout the department, the likelihood of deadly force being used against armed persons has generally declined while the use of ECWs has generally increased.”
That analysis “offers additional support for the notion that ECWs can supplant firearms as a tool of last resort when facing armed persons,” the report stated.
In 2007, only police supervisors had Tasers, but by 2013, the department had distributed 1,766 Tasers to patrol officers, according to the study.
City and police officials have not provided an explanation for why the distribution subsequently fell off and never reached Ramsey’s original target of 4,500.
Richard Ross, who served as police commissioner from January 2016 to August 2019, could not be reached Thursday. Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw, who took over in January, said Wednesday she wants all patrol officers to have Tasers, but there is no timetable for that yet. A police spokesperson said only that funding has been an issue.
John McNesby, president of the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police, the union that represents police officers, said Tuesday on the Dom Giordano radio show on 1210 WPHT that “not everybody is equipped with a Taser, nor are they trained.”
On the radio show, McNesby defended the officers who shot Wallace: “He ignored numerous commands, numerous orders to drop the knife, and then he lunged at them. He left the officers with no choice.”
But that’s exactly what Tasers were supposed to provide: a choice.
Hans Menos, the former executive director of the city’s Police Advisory Commission, said city officials need to prioritize the issuance of Tasers, and said it was “troubling” that the department hadn’t followed the recommendations of the Justice Department’s 2015 report.
“We have this potentially lifesaving tool and it’s not standard issue,” Menos said. “We have a life-taking tool in a firearm that is standard issue.”
Menos, the incoming vice president of law enforcement initiatives at the Center for Policing Equity, which seeks to address racial disparities in law enforcement, said the Tasers could also benefit officers.
“It’s the responsibility of the Police Department to elongate the force continuum so the officers have as many options as possible before they use deadly force,” he said. “I don’t believe that any officer wants to use deadly force. It’s traumatizing.”
Tasers, of course, are not a perfect solution. They can fail to incapacitate a person, including in cases of a person who is under the influence of drugs or wearing heavy clothing. They need to be checked at the beginning of shifts to ensure that they are functioning properly. In Ventnor, in August, a Taser apparently failed to work during an encounter with a man with a knife.
“When they work successfully, it’s great. But 40% of the time, they do not work as expected,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a group focused on improving the professionalism of policing. Wexler emphasized the need for more de-escalation training for Philadelphia police officers.
Shaka Johnson, one of the lawyers representing Wallace’s family, said Thursday that he was not surprised that the officers who killed Wallace did not have Tasers. He often sees Taser-less officers at the courthouse.
“I wasn’t surprised, but I was like, ‘Damn, here’s yet another one,’” said Johnson, who also represents Lee, the man with the box cutter who was shot last year. Johnson said officers in Lee’s case didn’t have Tasers but were calling for an officer who was Taser-trained.
“Tasers or some other less-than-lethal remedy has to be available to police officers,” Johnson said. “Because if the only single remedy that you have is a gun, it’s hard for me to expect officers to do something other than lethal force. I think police recognize that, in terms of issuing batons and pepper spray. But a baton doesn’t do it for a person who has a knife.”