On Monday, Oct. 26, Walter Wallace Jr., a 27-year-old Black man who suffered from bipolar disorder, was fatally shot by Philadelphia police while he was experiencing a mental health crisis and wielding a knife. The deadly encounter has again raised questions about the effectiveness of police procedures when engaging individuals with mental health issues. Officers, like the public at large, have varied opinions.
ZEEK ARKHAM: Cops are trained to shoot center mass. Everyone that’s ever handled a firearm is trained to shoot center mass, so at that situation when someone is running at you with a knife, unfortunately, if they are not following commands to drop their weapon, a gun really is your only recourse. Or you get stabbed. Those are your two options.
– Put the knife down!
– Put the knife down! Move. Move. Move.
ZEEK ARKHAM: My name is Zeek Arkham from New York City– Queens, New York. My reaction when I saw the video was I was first wondering what was going on because the video was a little jumpy. You know, it was a cell phone video I saw. And I saw the person coming at the officer with what appeared to be a knife or some sort of stabbing instrument in his hand. I heard the shots and to me, just from all of my experience, it looked like a reasonable, lawful shooting.
I mean, I’ve been called to many mental health jobs, and the overwhelming majority of them have ended peacefully, but then there’s that 1% where it goes crazy. I don’t know what the cops did or didn’t do before then, so I can’t really speak on that. But at the end of it when he’s swinging the knife around, there’s no way to de-escalate something like that. You know, if he’s already decided he’s going to be violent, he’s already decided that something’s going to happen.
I don’t know of any way you can talk someone down from that, aside from giving them multiple commands to drop their weapon. If he had dropped his weapon, could the cops have gone in and tried to de-escalate the situation further? Yeah, but at that particular moment, it was a violent, hostile situation. So in that particular moment, I believe the cops did everything they could.
KIRK BURKHALTER: My name is Kirk Burkhalter. I’m currently a professor of law at New York Law School, and in addition to teaching, I spent 20 years in the New York City Police Department, retiring as a first grade detective. My reaction in the deaths of other folks that we have seen by the hands of police who have mental challenges, and here is my issue, we tend to– and not only this incident, but to go to a little bit broader in a lot of these incidents where Black folks are shot by police– the focus tends to be solely on the timing of what occurred right there at that point in time where the police encountered this man.
This is a situation where this is a result that we could expect. So for me, it’s a failure in the response, and that starts on the level of those who are the decision-makers in these departments, right? So if we just have this call where someone’s acting erratically, I think they’re going to harm someone, and you send two police officers, this is the likely outcome. As opposed to sending the police, sending a mental health professional, having perhaps someone who is trained in dispute resolution and hostage negotiation, and so forth. What amount of resources are worth one human life? And the answer is, no amount of resources.
ZEEK ARKHAM: To me, Blue Lives Matter isn’t just about skin color, it’s about what’s in your heart. I’ve had partners of many different races, backgrounds, religions, creeds, orientations, things like that, and we make an oath to each other that we’re both going home. You watch your partner’s back, he watches yours, and those people become your family.
I’ve got people I call my family, my brothers, that look nothing like me– come from different backgrounds. So when I say “Blue Lives Matter,” when a lot of cops say, “Blue Lives Matter,” we’re talking about the bond we have with each other where our lives and the lives of our partners and the lives of the people we work with are important to us.
KIRK BURKHALTER: One would not say, “Blue Lives Matter” or “All Lives Matter” had not there been a “Black Lives Matter.” So it’s somewhat of a antagonistic phrase. Of course blue lives matter. I was a cop for 20 years. Of course, the lives of police officers matter. I don’t believe that is at issue, and I don’t believe that you have a large swath of the public who are going around thinking that the lives of police do not matter.
The issue here is the proliferation of killings of Black persons at the hands of law enforcement. And the slogan Black Lives Matter, the movement, and so forth, was meant to bring attention to that particular aspect. There is no deficit of sympathy in this country for police officers who are being harmed, and rightly so. So there is no need to necessarily to go out of our way to call attention to it.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: I said please don’t be too nice. Like when you guys put somebody in the car and you’re protecting their head, you know, they way you put their hand over– like don’t hit their head, and they’ve just killed somebody, don’t hit their head. I said, you can take the hand away, OK.
ZEEK ARKHAM: I don’t think there’s a single politician that has actually helped, believe it or not. I think both sides are complicit in the divide. In left-leaning states, the narrative has been one thing. In right-leaning states, the narrative has been another. I say we get the politicians, we get everybody out of it, we sit at a table, and we talk.
KIRK BURKHALTER: The President’s affect on police-community relations this close to the election, it does not help. I think that– I hate to opine on politics in particular– that being said, the President certainly uses certain words that could be seen as dog whistles quite often. When we look at Charlottesville and all types of other incidents, it seems that the President hasn’t been too quick to speak up and intercede.
And this concept that if one complains about their police department or law enforcement then they are un-American, nothing can be further from the truth. As a matter of fact, theoretically, that is what this country’s about and what it was built on, right, the opportunity for citizens to be involved in the governmental process and the administration of government without fear of reprisal.