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Philadelphia Officials Promise Changes After Walter Wallace Jr. Shooting


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Rachel Martin. In Philadelphia, city officials have released the 911 calls and police body cam video of the moments that led up to the fatal shooting of Walter Wallace Jr. last week. He was shot outside his parents' home. Wallace had a history of mental health crises. And when police were called, he was acting violently and in possession of a knife. The shooting has raised questions about whether enough was done by police to de-escalate the situation. Laura Benshoff with member station WHYY has following the release of this video, and she joins us now. Laura, thanks for being here. And just a note to our listeners - description in this conversation will be disturbing to some. Can you just start off and describe, if you could, what the footage shows?

LAURA BENSHOFF, BYLINE: Sure, Rachel. We knew a lot of what had happened because of some bystander video, but the police body cam just really fills in an extremely chaotic scene. It is so loud and so tense. You have Wallace's mother and bystanders screaming, trying to pull at Wallace as he paces outside his parents' home. They're yelling at police that he's mental. Officers pull up. They pull out their guns very quickly. And Wallace sort of walks around this street haphazardly. He changes direction, walking towards an officer, walking away. At one point, you hear an officer just say shoot him as Wallace walks out from behind a car and starts crossing the street. And then they do. And it all just takes less than a minute.

MARTIN: Wow. So the Wallace family has said they do not want murder charges filed against the officers, but they do want justice. What could that mean?

BENSHOFF: Through an attorney, the family has said that they believe the officers weren't properly trained. There was no de-escalation of the situation. And they want the officers fired. They also want to heal what they see as a huge rift between the way that police respond to a mental health crisis like what Wallace was in and the way that it's currently done. You know, there was a mental health provider that was not based far away that had been volunteering to work with the police more closely and who knew Wallace. And that person was never called. And there's also been a program to try to get behavioral health experts listening in to police dispatch, and that didn't happen either.

MARTIN: So yesterday, the city announced - made some changes in policing. Was there anything in those changes to address some of the family's concerns?

BENSHOFF: Yeah, mental health was a big focus. And, you know, Mayor Jim Kenney promised that the city is just working to fix problems with the overall criminal justice system.


JIM KENNEY: Seeing another life tragically lost yet again to police violence can make many of us question whether anything has changed or whether anything will ever change. But this is why we are releasing this footage because things have to change, and they are changing.

BENSHOFF: So releasing the footage, they said, was unprecedented. They haven't done that before. And then the police commissioner and Department of Behavioral Health had announced, you know, all of these initiatives that they're trying to help merge together mental health support and, you know, emergency dispatch. So they're giving police dispatchers themselves new scripts and new trainings aimed at identifying mental health crises. There's also a pilot program to embed behavioral health counselors with law enforcement.

MARTIN: All right. Laura Benshoff from member station WHYY joining us from Philadelphia. Thank you very much for your reporting on this.

BENSHOFF: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLOGS' "5/4") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Laura Benshoff
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