Editorial: Tragedy in focus: What Walter Wallace's death reminds us about mental illness and policing

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What Walter Wallace Jr.’s family wanted when they dialed 911 for the third time in a single day on Oct. 26 was for medical providers and an ambulance to come treat and rescue him — a 27-year-old Black man with bipolar disorder who was that day in the throes of a severe mental health crisis.

Instead, two young and armed Philadelphia police officers arrived, to find a zombie-like man, butcher knife in hand.

Police body camera video shot that day and properly released last week show Wallace’s family screaming, “He’s mental! He’s mental,” trying to stop the pair of audibly terrified officers in the fateful seconds before they riddled Walter’s body with at least 11 bullets, killing him.

Wallace’s death is one in a long string of similar, awful, avoidable tragedies, too long to list here. The deaths of Deborah Danner, Saheed Vassell, Mohammed Bah and Dwayne Pritchett are just a few.

No one should have to fear that seeking medical help for a loved one experiencing a psychiatric emergency will get him or her killed, but that is all too often what happens. Among the more than 5,000 people killed by police in the U.S. since 2015, some 23% had mental illness.

This is not to point the blame at cops in Philadelphia or elsewhere. Cities and states rely on police officers as a last resort after decades of underfunding mental illness treatment.

Until all levels of government invest in real psychiatric care, and create emergency response systems that send medical treatment to de-escalate mental health crises, we’ll keep seeing deaths like Walter Wallace Jr.’s, and their blood will be on our collective hands.

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