Walter Wallace Jr.’s shooting death was maddeningly familiar but the decades of trauma that West Philadelphia has endured, made it much more painful.
After Wallace’s mother and neighbors watched him get shot by police while he had a mental health crisis, the streets near the family’s home in Cobbs Creek, a predominantly Black neighborhood, were filled with glass and burnt debris, and some businesses were looted.
Thirty-five years prior, tensions between police and a Black liberation group culminated with a bombing just blocks away that some people believe has contributed to the anger and frustration behind last week’s protests.
“If we had gone through the hard work of reconciliation after the MOVE Bombing, maybe those officers would have seen in Walter someone in need of a helping hand, rather than a threat,” Jamie Gauthier, a Philadelphia council member representing Wallace’s district, tweeted on Thursday.
“They would have seen him and realized he was someone’s son, father, husband, neighbor,” she added.
Some families in Philadelphia have endured police brutality and racism for generations and this year alone has exacerbated that frustration and pain. The coronavirus pandemic highlighted economic and health disparities, George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis brought on a reckoning about race and hundreds of lives have been shattered by gun violence.
“People came together because they’re angry, they’re hurt that Walter was slain like an animal, with no regard for his mother and father,” said Rev. Robert Collier, president of the Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity. “They don’t want this to happen to anybody else but they’re tired of Black and Brown folks being shot down.”
The day the city bombed a neighborhood
It was the Monday after Mother’s Day 1985 when police dropped a bomb in West Philadelphia — a show of force that unfolded into a tragedy that no one had foreseen.
MOVE, a Black liberation group led by John Africa, emerged in the early 1970s and became known for holding demonstrations against war and police brutality. Tensions with the Philadelphia Police Department soon followed and escalated in 1978 to a gun battle in Powelton Village that left one police officer dead and nine of the group’s members arrested and convicted.
Some of the remaining members settled into a rowhouse in West Philadelphia, just six blocks from where Wallace was shot last week. They campaigned for the release of their jailed members, prompting neighbors to complain about the group’s loudspeakers and appealing to authorities for help. City officials decided to evict the group and arrest some of them, leading to the May 13, 1985, shootout and bombing. Eleven people were killed and 61 homes were destroyed.
A special commission appointed by then-Mayor W. Wilson Goode to investigate the bombing concluded that “dropping a bomb on an occupied row house was unconscionable.”
But the city has never issued an official apology. Gauthier introduced a resolution Thursday for the city to issue a formal apology for the bombing and establish May 13 as an annual day of “observation, reflection, and recommitment.”
“People in that neighborhood, have a very dark painful and traumatic relationship with police,” Gauthier told CNN. “What happened on Monday, shows there’s still some deep- seated issues to be worked out related to law enforcement’s ability to see the people who live in these neighborhoods as human.”
While younger people in the community may have not heard of or been around when the bombing took place, they’ve witnessed or experienced violent confrontations with police.
Two plainclothes officers responding to reports of gunfire in West Philadelphia shot an unarmed food delivery man in 2014, leaving him seriously injured. In 2017, the city reached a $4.4 million settlement in a lawsuit brought by the man. The officers had been allowed to patrol the area months after the shooting but were reassigned to new neighborhoods after dozens of residents protested the decision, saying they were “very uncomfortable and frightened” knowing they were on their streets.
In 2016, nine police officers in West Philadelphia fired 109 times, killing Christopher Sowell, a 32-year-old accused of attacking five people, CNN affiliate WPVI reported. The ACLU of Pennsylvania has released multiple reports on the police’s use of stop and frisk policy with its latest finding that 71% of all stops and 82% of frisks involve Black Philadelphians.
The negative perception of police in the area led two officers who grew up in West Philly to host a weekly get-together dubbed “Karaoke with a Cop” last year and invited the community to sing and dance with them.
George Floyd protests set off action in the city
Rev. Mark Tyler was waiting Monday to testify in a virtual meeting of the city’s special committee on criminal justice reform when his 16-year-old daughter sent him a video of Wallace’s shooting shortly after it was posted.
“It’s moments like this that remind us the importance of the work of police oversight,” Tyler, pastor of Mother Bethel AME Church and co-director of the POWER Interfaith Live Free campaign, told the committee members, referring to the shooting. “I’m just at a loss right now.”
As Wallace’s shooting had shocked his West Philadelphia neighbors and the initial protests began, the committee was discussing a proposed overhaul and rebranding of the city’s Police Advisory Commission, the civilian watchdog agency for the police department.
Last summer’s protests in the city after the death of George Floyd prompted city officials to put a greater emphasis on police reform.
The city launched a police and public safety reform effort in June called “Pathways to Reform, Transformation, and Reconciliation” and a series of measures were approved to expand oversight and transparency in the police department. Last week, the city council approved a bill banning the use of tear gas, rubber bullets and pepper spray during protests.
Voters are expected to decide this week whether to create a citizen oversight commission to replace the existing one, the creation of an office that would advocate for crime victims and whether police should end the use of “stop and frisk.”
While authorities are actively proposing and approving changes in policing, Tyler and other advocates for police reform say Wallace’s death could have been prevented with adequate changes.
A 2015 study by the Justice Department found “serious deficiencies” in the Philadelphia Police Department’s use of force, finding about 15% of police shootings were of unarmed suspects who were mistaken for being armed. The DOJ recommended that all of patrol officers should be equipped with tasers.
Currently, there are about 4,500 patrol officers on the Philadelphia police force and the department has 2,300 Tasers, Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle M. Outlaw said in a news conference Wednesday.
Philadelphia Council President Darrell L. Clarke said Wednesday there is a five-year plan by the police calling for $14 million in expenditures for new Tasers.
“He (Wallace) could still be alive today if only we had adhered to what the Department of Justice said to the city back then,” Tyler said.
Deadliest year for gun violence since 2007
Calls for police reform and some changes come as the city is facing the deadliest year in 13 years.
There have been 404 murders this year, compared with 391 murders in 2007, according to data from the Philadelphia Police Department.
In the past two months, there have been 466 shooting across the city in what Outlaw, the police commissioner, has as a “pandemic of gun violence.”
Funeral directors led a parade of dozens of hearses last month to bring attention to the rise of gun violence in the city, CNN affiliate WPVI reported.
Families in West Philadelphia had already been mourning before Wallace was killed last week.
Hundreds of people had attended a vigil in August, holding blue and white balloons for a 7-year-old boy who died after being shot while playing on his front porch, WPVI reported. He dreamed of becoming a police officer.
A 27-year-old man was arrested in connection with the shooting and is facing attempted murder and multiple weapons charges, according to court records.
People are feeling helpless, Gauthier, the councilwoman said, but she believes the community and city officials can interact and prevent violence.
“Police violence exacerbates gun violence within our neighborhoods,” Gauthier said. “If people feel like they’re at risk at the hands of the police, if they feel police are racist and the police as an institution isn’t a legitimate body, they’re not going to work with them on solving homicides.”
For Charles Ramsey, a former Philadelphia police commissioner who pushed for community policing, law enforcement relationships with communities are fragile and need constant work.
“Building trust starts with little things as well as the bigger things,” said Ramsey, who is also a CNN contributor. “You have to do that in advance, the time to do it it’s not during a crisis, you have to build up goodwill when there is nothing bad going on at the moment.”
“Relationships are built one person at a time,” he added. “They may never trust an entire department but they’ll trust individuals. That’s how it starts.”