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Use of Force is Wrong Response to Mental Health in US

Police Killing in Philadelphia Underscores Need for Supportive Responses to Emotional Crises

A neighbor gathers at a memorial outside Walter Wallace Jr.'s home in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, October 27, 2020.  © 2020 Jose F. Moreno/The Philadelphia Inquirer via AP

The killing of Walter Wallace Jr., a 27-year-old man with a mental health condition, in Philadelphia this week is now part of a long list of cases of police violence against people with disabilities in the United States.

On Monday afternoon, Wallace, a husband and father whose wife is expecting a baby this week, experienced serious emotional distress. His family called for an ambulance to help. Police arrived first. Video footage shows two police officers with guns trained on Wallace, as he wanders around the street holding a knife. His mother tries to subdue him. After Wallace refused their commands to drop the knife, police shot him multiple times, killing him. His mother, friends, and neighbors watched. There was no apparent attempt by the officers to de-escalate the situation or use non-lethal means to manage it.

According to one study, approximately one-third to half of all people involved in use-of-force incidents by police have a disability, including mental health conditions. Black people generally are three times more likely to be killed by police than white people. Police killings of Black men in emotional crisis in recent years include: LaQuan McDonald, in Chicago, Illinois, October 2014; Alfred Olango, in San Diego, California, September 2016; Joshua Barre, in Tulsa, June 2017;  Marcus-David Peters in Richmond, Virginia, May 2018; and Daniel Prude, in Rochester, New York, earlier this month. This list is far from exhaustive.

People with intellectual or developmental disabilities are also at risk. In September, Salt Lake City police responded to a request for help from the mother of a 13-year-old boy with autism who was in emotional distress. Police shot the unarmed boy, who reportedly feared police, in the back multiple times as he ran from them.

State and local governments should end the use of police to respond to incidents involving people experiencing mental health crises and instead implement non-coercive, supportive interventions. This can include response teams designed to connect, build rapport, and de-escalate stressful situations. Investment in communities, including accessible, affordable mental health services and support to address social issues that exacerbate stress and anxiety, are also essential. The evidence is clear: police use of force is not a rights-respecting or effective response to mental health crises.  

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