‘You change police culture, you change American culture’: Police officers choose sides over ‘Blue Lives Matter’ in wake of officer killing of Walter Wallace Jr. – Yahoo News

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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 weilding a knife while walking towards the officers. 

Ahead of his killing, Wallace’s family had called an ambulance for assistance, but police arrived first. Cell phone video of the encounter, which has since gone viral, has raised renewed questions as to the role of policing when engaging individuals with mental health issues. The question that most often arises: Was everything done to deescalate Wallace’s encounter with police?

“Police are not trained to deal with folks with mental health issues,” Kirk Burkhalter, a former 20-year NYPD detective, told Yahoo News in a video interview. “It takes years for one to complete that form of training.”

What happened to Wallace is the result of sending only police officers, rather than police joined by a mental health professional, Burkhalter argues.

“What amount of resources are worth one human life?” he asks. “And the answer is no amount of resources.”

Burkhalter acknowledges that most officers in the situation that the Philadelphia officers were in would react the same way, but he challenges the heads of police departments to work to avoid putting officers in this position at all.

“There was no need for the police to be in this situation,” said Burkhalter. “I’m not saying the police should not respond. They are our first responders. … However, there should be a response with other folks — first and foremost, mental health professionals.”

Walter Wallace Jr. (Credit: CBS Philly)
Walter Wallace Jr. (Credit: CBS Philly)

Data shows that inadequate mental health intervention too often leads to death. Adults with severe mental illness account for one in four people killed in police encounters, according to a 2015 report from the Treatment Advocacy Center, a national nonprofit based in Arlington, Va. Additionally, individuals with untreated mental illness face a 16-times-greater risk of being killed in a law-enforcement encounter compared to other civilians. Meanwhile, individuals with serious mental illness account for just 3 percent to 5 percent of violent acts, according to the Health and Human Services Department.

Shaka Johnson, an attorney for the Wallace family, said at a news conference Tuesday that Philadelphia police officers failed in their preparation for encountering Wallace, whose mother warned them of her son’s breakdown.

“When you come to a scene where somebody is in a mental crisis, and the only tool you have to deal with it is a gun … where are the proper tools for the job?” said Johnson.

Police officials said they could not confirm what information had been given to the responding officers, according to the Associated Press. However, Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw did admit that neither officer on the scene had a taser or similar device at the time of the shooting, noting the department had previously asked for funding to equip more officers with those devices. Outlaw also stated the department does not have a mental health unit.

“We don’t have a behavioral health unit, which is sorely needed,” Outlaw said. “There’s clearly a disconnect on our end in terms of knowing what’s out there.”

Outlaw has pledged to release 911 tapes and body camera footage once it has been shared with Wallace’s family. The Philadelphia police department did not respond to a request for comment from Yahoo News.

Scene from protests in Philadelphia near the location where Walter Wallace, Jr. was killed by two police officers. (Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images)
Scene from protests in Philadelphia near the location where Walter Wallace, Jr. was killed by two police officers. (Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images)

Wallace, a father of nine, was expecting to welcome a baby this week with his wife, Dominique Wallace. Now, Wallace’s family is left confused, hurt and traumatized by how the ordeal unfolded.

“It’s in my mind,” Walter Wallace Sr. said Tuesday. “I can’t even sleep at night. I can’t even close my eyes.”

In reaction to the video and the fallout from the shooting, Zeek Arkham, a Black police officer in New York state, shared his views on the encounter in a tweet that has since gone viral.

“I’m Black. I’m a cop. I’ve also had hours of de-escalation training,” he tweeted Tuesday. “With that said: No matter your color, mental status, prior condition, or mood, if you run at me with a knife, I will shoot you. Many times. The end. #Philadelphia #phillyriots #BlueLivesMatter.”

In a follow up interview with Yahoo News, Arkham expanded on his point of view.

“When he’s swinging the knife around, there’s no way to deescalate something like that,” said Arkham. “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 weapons. … I believe the cops did everything they could.”

While many Twitter users agreed with Arkham’s stance, others criticized the idea that nothing else could have been done.

Another Black officer from a police department in Southern California, who agreed to speak to Yahoo News on condition of anonymity, said the video of the encounter showed that the officers put their profession ahead of their humanity and “too many cops get that mixed up”.

“When I saw the video and I heard about it, it was absolutely disturbing to me,” the veteran officer told Yahoo News. “As cops we don’t like to Monday Night quarterback other cops … [but] what I saw on video was a whole bunch of cops who didn’t know what they were doing and didn’t have a plan. They’re running around the car like it was a merry-go-round. In my fourteen years you don’t go into a situation like this without a plan.” 

The officer added that a proper plan would have at least entailed a taser, or other form of nonlethal weapon, but none of these were present. Even still, the officer stressed the need for more mental health services, which are severely underfunded nationwide.

“Monday through Friday we are the mental health services, the homeless outreach services and more,” the officer said. “It’s a lot.”

A demonstrator protesting the fatal police shooting of Walter Wallace Jr. wears a hoodie with a photo of Trayvon Martin on the backside. (Photo by Joshua Lott/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
A demonstrator protesting the fatal police shooting of Walter Wallace Jr. wears a hoodie with a photo of Trayvon Martin on the backside. (Photo by Joshua Lott/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Arkham added that despite efforts to deescalate a tense situation and have the presence of more resources that include mental health professionals, to him, it’s all about making it back home safely. In other words, it’s about “Blue Lives Matter,” he said, a reference to a motto police advocates have adapted from the Black Lives Matters movement. 

“Blue lives matter isn’t just about skin color,” said Arkham. “It’s about what’s in your heart. I’ve had partners of many different races, backgrounds, religions, creeds and orientations. We make an oath to each other that we’re both going home. You watch your partner’s back and he watches yours.”

Arkham said he believes Black lives matter, but argues that this needs to include all Black lives: Not only those killed by law enforcement, but also those who are living disadvantaged lives, many who he says he tries to help.

But Burkhalter, the former NYPD detective, sees the “Blue Lives Matter” moniker as a distraction.

“There would be no one saying blue lives matter or all lives matter had not there not been a Black Lives Matter movement,” he said. “So it’s somewhat of an antagonistic phrase. Of course blue lives matter. I was a cop for 20 years. 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,” he continues. “And the slogan Black Lives Matter, the movement, 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.”

Demonstrators protest the fatal police shooting of Walter Wallace Jr. on October 27, 2020 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Joshua Lott/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Demonstrators protest the fatal police shooting of Walter Wallace Jr. on October 27, 2020 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Joshua Lott/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The officer from Southern California shared these sentiments.

“I don’t believe in blue lives matter,” he said. “Blue lives came after Black Lives Matter. It’s a story of inclusion not exclusion. … To other cops, we’re all just cops. But things are different for me outside of this uniform.”

The officer said that once he leaves work and changes from his uniform, he’s subject to the same kind of profiling as any other Black man if he’s stopped by another police officer.

“That’s my problem with blue lives matter,” he said. “When you are off you don’t have the complexion to get a break. Ultimately, you change police culture, you change American culture.”

Cover thumbnail photo illustration: (Photo Illustration: Yahoo! News; Photos: Mark Makela/Getty Images(3))

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