The killing of Walter Wallace Jr. has brought turmoil and unanswered questions about justice and accountability to the streets of Philadelphia. We must acknowledge that this shooting is part of a pattern of shooting black men and women that is occurring with increasing frequency in this society. Every time there is a police shooting that is problematic, in this case, one involving mental health issues, there is a call for these shootings to stop. The alarms are never effective. People, in their anger and frustration, spill into the streets, looting follows and the focus then shifts to the looting. The looting is not acceptable, but the killing of Walter Wallace must remain the focus, and real change must be made.
It is time for defunding the police. This does not mean, and I speak for myself, eliminating police departments, but it does mean re-imagining and enacting reforms that will increase policing procedures to meet the needs of the communities they serve. We must acknowledge the systemic racism that infects our institutions, develop frameworks to deal with that racism, and move forward to a more just and equitable society. This involves much more than simply “re-training” police. I do not believe that you can “re-train’ racist thoughts and actions with a few hours of class time.
Years ago, when I was teaching in Whitehall, Pa., I also worked part time as a crisis intervention counselor for the Lehigh County MH Unit. We worked in pairs and responded to calls from the community. In light of the Walter Wallace shooting I have been reminded of three episodes that stand out in my memory. In each case we received a call about a man with a gun or a knife who was threatening others. We were instructed, no, we were commanded to not respond without escort from the local police departments. On these calls we, the counselors, were threatened with physical harm. The police, in all three cases, had their weapons drawn, yet no one was shot and the three incidents ended with a man in handcuffs, being taken to a hospital for a psych evaluation. Between the police and the counselors we were able to de-escalate the situations and find a solution that did not end in death.
This all happened decades ago. Why do we still find ourselves in situations today where black men and women are being killed in increasing numbers? There has been ample time for “re-training” and that has either not been done or is not effective. The root of the problem is 400 years of a racist society and that is what has to be faced today. I would like to blame Trump for this. He is a white supremacist and he has fanned the flames of hatred, but the problem is in us.
Our police departments are heavily armed when they take to the streets. They are faceless behind their masks and shields. This cannot be who we are or who we want to be. We must call for justice for Walter Wallace and his family and our community. We must face the hard work ahead of us, and we must begin it immediately.