The death of Walter Wallace Jr. is a tragedy. A tragedy of mental health, not of race.
Last night, knowing what was to come throughout the city, I went to bed sad. Seeing the videos on the news this morning, I am still sad. A man I have much in common with was killed in a police shooting, and the significant story has been lost in a chaotic melee of riots and looting.
What could I possibly have in common with Walter Wallace Jr.? I am a white man in my 50s who lives with his family in one of Philadelphia’s nicest neighborhoods. While the helicopters buzz incessantly overhead and the sirens wail, so far at least, the violence has raged blocks away.
But this time especially that rage is misplaced. Throughout the summer this scene has repeatedly played out over the deaths of unarmed blacks by police officers. This isn’t a case of that at all.
Walter Wallace Jr. had bipolar disorder for which he was under doctor’s care. So do I. He took medication for his condition. So do I. Like Mr. Wallace my experience with bipolar disorder has led me to make some very poor decisions and to engage in some very reckless behavior toward myself and others. Mr. Wallace was taken by an episode that left him threatening and aggressive to both the people he loved and anyone who might have crossed his path.
Walter Wallace Jr. had bipolar disorder for which he was under doctor’s care. So do I. He took medication for his condition. So do I. Like Mr. Wallace my experience with bipolar disorder has led me to make some very poor decisions and to engage in some very reckless behavior toward myself and others.
This is a familiar situation for many of us with bipolar disorder. The police officers called to restrain us are afraid and often untrained on how to handle a psychotic break. The result of the encounter between Mr. Wallace and the police is common enough that in the seminal textbook Manic-Depressive Illness: Bipolar Disorders and Recurrent Depression, the authors describe it as “suicide by officer.” Their research shockingly shows that this may be a contributor in more than 50 percent of all police shootings.
Twice on Monday officers were called to Mr. Wallace’s address for domestic disturbances. He was known to be a man with very challenging behavior. Why, on the third call, were the officers not accompanied by a mental health worker? I’m sure the officers were asking that very question.
I know two high-ranking police officers who for years have lobbied for mental health workers to accompany their patrol persons on exactly this type of call. For years they have had their requests shelved. In the battle against mental illness the police have played a caring but desperate role. They certainly try, but they are trying without the training and assistance that they have long requested.
The police are, however, trained very well on what to do when a person with a knife refuses repeated requests to disarm and lunges toward officers or anybody else. Mr. Wallace, surely acting without reason, did exactly that. For that reason alone, not racial bias, the officers responded with deadly force.
The protests started immediately and the riots and looting followed shortly thereafter. But everyone misses the point. Walter Wallace Jr. died because of the difficulty we as a community have accepting, treating and coping with mental illness. Those carrying signs and bullhorns to the 18th precinct or TVs from the Walmart in Port Richmond protesting that this shooting is reflective of anything else is twisting the narrative to suit their own agenda. Moreover, they are missing the opportunity to begin an earnest discussion about mental health and the criminal justice system.
I know two high-ranking police officers who for years have lobbied for mental health workers to accompany their patrol persons on exactly this type of call. For years they have had their requests shelved. In the battle against mental illness the police have played a caring but desperate role.
The response by activists and thugs to this tragedy masks some facts about mental illness, specifically bipolar disorder, that should lead the story today. 18 percent of people with bipolar disorder take their own lives. 26 percent receive mental health services in prison. 60 percent of the rest are unemployed. And yet when treated with medicine and therapy 85 percent of people with bipolar disorder are able to thrive with level moods and a positive purpose in life.
From these facts we can begin a conversation about economic and racial disparities in mental healthcare. Instead we have a city of boarded-up stores, early closings, and misplaced rage irresponsibly fueling a flame of disruption over issues that do not apply to this case.
Walter Wallace Jr. is dead and I am sad. I can say, “There but for the grace of God go I.” We can properly mourn and even honor the life of Mr. Wallace by focusing on the real story here. But other people have other demands to make, and other people have sneakers to steal. More marches about race are certain. More looting will follow. Once again, the voice of those with mental illness will go unheard.
George Hofmann is the author of Resilience: Handling Anxiety in a Time of Crisis. He lives in Philadelphia with his wife, their daughter and two poorly behaved dogs.