Mensah M. Dean
The Philadelphia Inquirer
The city of Philadelphia said Tuesday it would equip its patrol officers with Tasers, a step announced on the one-year anniversary of the death of Walter Wallace Jr., a mentally distressed Black man shot and killed by police outside his West Philadelphia home.
In an agreement announced in coordination with Wallace’s family, the city said it would spend $14 million to purchase the electroshock weapons for all of its patrol officers, train them on their use and require them to wear them on the job.
“The killing of Mr. Wallace, Jr. was painful and traumatic for many Philadelphians,” Mayor Jim Kenney said in a statement. “This tragic and unsettling incident, along with last year’s protests, underscored the urgency of many important reforms such as mental health training and crisis response resources.”
Wallace’s death came five months after the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis sparked national outrage and reckoning over police brutality, and a pledge by cities across the country — including Philadelphia — to review their practices and policies. Like nearly two-thirds of Philadelphia’s police force, the two officers who shot Wallace, 27, in the 6100 block of Locust Street did not have Tasers.
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In the weeks that followed, Wallace’s family demanded reforms, saying the officers’ lack of nonlethal options during the confrontation was among the systemic shortcomings of the criminal justice system that led to his death. They sued the officers, Sean Matarazzo and Thomas Munz Jr., for allegedly using unreasonable force, and the city for failing to equip its officers with the stun guns, as had been recommended after a 2015 report by the U.S. Department of Justice.
An effort to do so had been underway but stalled. On the day Wallace was killed about 2,300 Philadelphia officers — or about one-third of the total force — were equipped with Tasers.
Matarazzo and Munz were not among them when they arrived on the scene on Oct. 26, 2020, responding to a 911 call and hearing warnings from Wallace’s relatives that he was mentally unstable. Video from the incident showed Wallace holding a knife when the officers arrived and asked him repeatedly to drop the weapon. When he did not, and moved toward one officer, they fired 14 shots, killing him.
‘Shoot him,’ officer said before firing at Walter Wallace Jr., lawyer says bodycam footage shows
In the aftermath, the city worked with its partners to “reimagine” public safety and advance racial justice, Kenney said. Among other steps, it agreed to roll out a pilot “co-responder unit” program, which pairs a health-care provider with a police officer to respond to 911 calls.
“While our work is not done,” the mayor said Tuesday, “we remain strongly committed to these goals and to making our city the best, fairest, and most equitable that it can be.”
John McNesby, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge #5, the union that represents the officers, said he welcomed the news. “These Tasers will be another nonlethal option that we hope will keep officers and the public safe,” he said.
The Wallace family’s lawsuit against the officers and city is still pending, the lawyers said. In a statement Tuesday, its lawyers said his relatives continue to mourn his “unnecessary and tragic death” and seek more reforms for the city.
“It is their overwhelming desire that these reforms will lead to a safer City for all citizens and ensure that no family will be forced to endure the tragedy of the loss of a loved one during a mental crisis,” they said.
In a statement, City Council President Darrell L. Clarke said the agreement to equip every officer with a Taser “is the right decision for Philadelphia. The training requirement on how to use these devices is equally important. We thank the Wallace family for its role in this settlement with the city.”
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