Too many victims end up like Philadelphia’s Walter Wallace Jr. My friend was one of the lucky ones.
| Opinion contributor
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Too often in America, calling police for help with someone undergoing a mental-health crisis is like playing Russian Roulette.
If you’re lucky, the responding officers will have good intentions, a background in crisis intervention training and some non-lethal tools that can help resolve an episode without deadly force.
But in too many instances the opposite happens, and someone dies.
That’s what happened in Philadelphia, where two officers answering a family’s call for help fatally shot a Black man who refused their repeated commands to drop a knife. The victim, Walter Wallace Jr., suffered from mental illness and, according to relatives, was undergoing a crisis when he was shot.
Roughly 1 in 4 people shot and killed by police in 2016 had a mental illness, according to the Treatment Advocacy Center, which analyzed information from a Washington Post database tracking fatal shootings by officers. And a 2015 report by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) found that police recruits typically spend just eight hours in crisis intervention training.
I have seen firsthand the critical value of such training — both personally and professionally.
Some communities get needed training, others don’t
My most compelling experience occurred in 2015, on my first day as chief of staff to the Baltimore police commissioner. As I dashed from meeting to meeting, my day was interrupted by a call from a friend who had just been released from a detention center and had been traumatized when officers assaulted him.
Hours later, I received a second call. An officer on the line told me my friend was in another jurisdiction, had been arrested while experiencing a mental-health crisis. A hospital had refused to admit him, and the officer said he feared for the worst and asked if he could take my friend to another hospital.
I agreed, and then I waited, and worried, until the officer called back at 3 a.m. My friend was safe. After thanking the officer profusely, I sat on the floor and cried. My friend had been one of the lucky ones.
For far too many people, these episodes do not turn out this way. Why? We depend too heavily on police for too much, and we expect officers who get little more than an introduction to the complexities of mental health disorders to know how to manage a complex situation with standard-issue tools — a badge and a gun.
My friend was lucky because the officer who resolved his case was in a well-funded suburban police department, had special training and knew what to do. All communities deserve well-trained officers who show up prepared to help, not to harm. In my job for the Baltimore police commissioner, I resolved to make this the norm in our city, and in my naïveté, I thought everyone would jump on board.
Trying to change the system
It was an uphill battle to get police the training and equipment they needed to do a very difficult job, create accountability mechanisms and find ways for affected communities to have a meaningful voice. All of the support that officials pledged in news conferences seemed to dissipate once they learned it would take money to bring about change. In the end, police officers were left to figure things out on their own — and take the blame when they unraveled.
After Michael Brown’s 2014 killing in Ferguson, the Police Executive Research Forum created a training program to help officers better manage volatile situations involving people who may be behaving dangerously but are not armed with a gun. The intensive training, called Integrating Communications, Assessment, and Tactics focuses on critical thinking and de-escalation practices.
I took the training, and I will never forget the helpless feeling I had as I stood on a stage trying to calm a police officer pretending to be a person in crisis with a knife. There were civilians in danger in this scenario, and there was nothing but me, my new de-escalation skills and my voice to disarm him.
The experience was illuminating, and highly challenging. And it made it all the more clear how ill-prepared most police academy graduates are for such encounters. Despite reports backing the training’s effectiveness in reducing use-of-force incidents and injuries, only a small fraction of the nation’s police agencies have embraced it.
So while I am heartbroken about what happened in Philadelphia, I am not surprised. The two officers who shot Wallace lacked sufficient preparation for the moment. Neither was carrying a Taser. A plan to equip the city’s 4,500 patrol officers with the devices apparently fell short.
Better training is by no means the only answer.
New York City recently announced plans to launch a pilot program that will send crisis professionals instead of police officers for mental health emergency calls. Such co-responder models offer promise, but until such practices are proven effective and deployed widely, we need better officer training to prevent Philadelphia from happening over and over again.
Wallace was a father, a newlywed and an aspiring rapper who suffered from a mental illness. It is telling that even his loved ones recognize that the officers who shot him did so because they lacked training. They have urged against the filing of murder charges, noting that the officers had neither the preparation nor proper equipment to defuse the situation.
If these grieving survivors get it, why don’t the rest of us? Why haven’t we acknowledged that police cannot and should not be expected to fix this on their own, without the full weight of the government, private sector and research community behind them?
Police show up because there is no other net to catch our most vulnerable people in their most critical time of need. And Americans are dying because of it.
A consultant who works at the Intersection of diversity, law and police reform, Ganesha Martin is the former chief of justice compliance for the Baltimore Police Department. She is a member of the Council on Criminal Justice.