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Can Philadelphia transform its police force from 'warriors' to 'guardians'? This deescalation training could help

By William Bender, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in News & Features

PHILADELPHIA — On a mild November night in 2015, Camden, New Jersey, police sped to Crown Fried Chicken at Broadway and Mickle, where a distraught man with a knife had just threatened to kill a customer inside.

When cops arrived, the 48-year-old man was outside, waving the knife, clearly a potential threat. Repeatedly, he refused police orders to drop his weapon.

The encounter could have been his death sentence in many cities in America — or, a few years earlier, in Camden itself.

Instead, police officers recognized the man was in the throes of a mental health crisis and backed off. An officer with a Taser, well over an arm's length away, walked with him for several blocks, trying to break through to the agitated man, all of it captured on video.

The officer fired his Taser, which didn't incapacitate the man, but he eventually dropped his knife and was taken into custody. No shots were fired.

Five years later, in similar circumstances in West Philadelphia, Walter Wallace Jr., a 27-year-old father of nine with a history of mental illness, emerged from his family's home holding a knife after police received a call that he was threatening his parents.

 

This time, two police officers, only a few years from the training academy, pulled their guns, shouted orders, and 41 seconds later fired 14 shots, killing Wallace.

"I understand he had a knife, and their job is to protect and serve," Anthony Fitzhugh, a cousin of Wallace, said the day after the shooting. "By all means do so, but do not let lethal force be the means by which you deescalate the situation."

Investigators here may conclude that the officers followed their training and were justified in opening fire on Wallace.

But the Oct. 26 incident, which led to widespread protests and unrest, may result in the Philadelphia Police Department reintroducing more extensive deescalation training — similar to what had been in place more than decade ago but was quietly discontinued.

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