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Warning: This article discusses violence and police brutality.
The story of Black people getting shot by police is regrettably familiar, and it’s a reality that took the life of Walter Wallace Jr., this past Monday. Wallace was a 27-year-old Philadelphia man with bipolar disorder, according to his wife, Dominique. Just moments before police shot and killed Wallace in front of his house, his mother, his neighbors, and onlookers rallied to protect him, but it wasn’t enough to protect Wallace from the police’s bullets.
As reported by the Philadelphia Inquirer, police officers were responding to reports of a man with a knife on Locust Street. When they arrived, Wallace was holding the knife, but his mother was chasing after him in an attempt to de-escalate the situation. Wallace’s mother attempted to shield her son from two police officers who were aiming guns at him, and witness Maurice Holloway told the newspaper that he was aware of Wallace’s mental health condition and repeatedly told the police not to shoot. Yet the officers still fired multiple rounds, and 14 bullets struck Wallace. He was pronounced dead on Monday at Penn Presbyterian Medical Center.
Although Wallace lived with bipolar disorder, he also lived with the effects of a society that has racism built into its very function.
The death of a mentally ill person, particularly a person of color, at the hands of police is all too common. A database of police shootings compiled by The Washington Post in 2015 found that mentally ill victims accounted for more than 1 in 5 police shootings. Black people are also 2.8 times more likely to be killed than white people, representing 32% of fatal police shootings, despite making up only 13% of the population, according to the CDC and the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
A man wielding a knife may pose a danger, but shooting numerous bullets on a neighborhood street with families—especially when there are viable alternatives available, such as tear gas, tasers, and rubber bullets—can pose an even greater danger. Police told NBC on Tuesday that Wallace’s death was justified, but Wallace is not dead just because he was holding a knife. After all, over 300,000 people a year are arrested for aggravated assault without losing their lives. Wallace is dead because our society functions on a system that has always criminalized Black individuals.
Violent protests broke out in Philadelphia late Monday night because of the police brutality and continued into Tuesday evening, with hundreds of people filling the streets. Businesses were looted. A police car was set on fire. Thirty police officers were injured, and one officer was struck by a pickup truck. As Martin Luther King Jr. once famously said, “a riot is the language of the unheard.” Protestors, organized by the Party for Socialism and Liberation, asked for defunding and abolishing the police in addition to questioning why other nonviolent methods were not considered.
But even with riots going on, the history of police in this country makes it clear why no amount of police reform will fully alleviate the situation of Black people being murdered on the streets. Slave patrols responsible for punishing and chasing slaves were one of the first forms of police in America, according to "The History of Policing in the United States," an article written by Dr. Gary Potter, a historian at Eastern Kentucky University. And this aggressive style of maintaining law and order still informs how the police operate today. That’s why defunding the police is not a radical leftist agenda that entails getting rid of the police. It’s a money issue, about reallocating funds to programs that can better serve the community, since some of America’s biggest cities currently dedicate up to 23% of their revenue to the police department, according to USA Today.
Plus, many mentally ill people say that they do not feel safe around police officers. A report generated in 2011 by researchers at the University of British Columbia and the University of South Florida surveyed 332 people who lived with schizophrenia, psychosis, and bipolar disorder and found that mentally ill people often have a negative view of police, resulting from poor previous experiences with law enforcement.
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This is why mental health specialists, rather than police, should be the ones to respond to mental health crises, as there wasn’t a mental health professional on the scene for Wallace. And the good news is that more cities are implementing this. For instance, in Eugene, Oregon, medics and crisis workers often respond to mental health calls rather than police. According to USA Today, Eugene’s crisis assistance program received 24,000 mental health calls last year, and less than 1% of calls—approximately 150—required police backup. As part of the $12 million settlement to Breonna Taylor’s family, Louisville, Kentucky, is implementing a co-responder program where behavioral health professionals accompany police on mental health calls. And this past summer, Denver, Colorado, replicated Eugene’s model and now sends a social worker and paramedic to mental health calls instead of police.
This new reform will help the 1 in 5 U.S. adults who live with a mental illness, especially since resources for mental health emergencies are scarce and ER visits related to mental health have increased by 44%, a government report finds. This is not a burden that can fall on the shoulders of untrained police officers who are used to enforcing the law, not de-escalating situations. Not to mention that many people buy into persistent stigmas surrounding psychosis, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder, the latter of which Wallace had—despite the fact that studies show that these conditions alone do not cause people to be violent. Mental illness cannot be remedied with bullets, and a nation that is unwilling to change cannot claim freedom as their founding principle.