Philadelphia Is Fed Up
Walter Wallace Jr.’s death points to Philadelphia’s long history of police violence
When a Black person is killed by the police, Black people are often trapped in the present moment. The whole of our reality becomes boots on the ground in protest and unbridled anger. From leaders, there are often empty promises and dog whistles. From protesters, there are demands for change. Philadelphia is no different.
When Walter Wallace Jr., 27, was gunned down by police on October 26, the city exploded. Protesters were injured and arrested. A patrol car erupted in flames. The unrest lasted for days. The situation garnered national attention, with leaders quickly condemning property damage and looting. But the finger-wagging only served as a distraction from what prompted the uprising in the first place: the loss of a life.
“I can’t say that [the shooting is] shocking. As a Black woman in America, the way [the police] handled it is not shocking,” says Bethany Stewart, an organizer with the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund. “There’s no reason why Walter is no longer living other than the fact that the police are here to cause harm to communities under the guise of keeping our communities safe. There are real people, resources, and opportunities to keep communities safe, and I don’t see that coming from the police.”
The murder came just days after a video surfaced of Philadelphians dancing to pass the time while waiting in line to vote for the next president of the United States (among other measures). That bit of revelry stood in stark juxtaposition to months of political struggles nationwide, where people demanded an end to police violence, including the brutality happening in Philly. Now, as the city deals with the fallout of the racially fraught presidential election and the positive outcome of several police-reform ballot questions, residents continue to simmer and plan. They know that the lip service offered by city leaders belies a nasty truth about the Philadelphia Police Department, which is the fourth largest in the country. The truth is this: The path to Wallace’s death is paved with decades of violence, million-dollar settlements, lawsuits, no police accountability, and reforms that have only provided more power to the city’s cops.
Wallace’s family said he was experiencing a mental health episode when they called for an ambulance in West Philadelphia the Monday he died. Instead, officers showed up. And they shot Wallace to death.
“The police go too far in their duties. Somebody is killed or injured as a result. There’s a public outcry, a promise for reform, then it happens again,” says Dain Saint, a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter who led “Black and Blue,” a special report and timeline of the city’s history of police brutality.
Chenjerai Kumanyika, an assistant professor of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University, adds, “Philly’s corruption seems to be extremely consistent throughout its history. I’ve found that there really hasn’t been a 10-year period where [the Philadelphia Police Department] has not had some major scandal since it was founded. At a certain point, it doesn’t make sense to call it corruption anymore. This is how this organization functions.”
A 2015 Department of Justice report found that Philly police shoot Black people at twice the rate of the general population. In a city where Black people make up about 41% of the population, 80% of those shot by police over a six-year period were Black, the report found. In the first half of 2019, police stopped 10,000 more drivers each month than usual, with Black drivers accounting for 74% of all vehicle stops and 80% of searches, according to the Inquirer. One out of every 14 Black people in Philly are on probation or parole; meanwhile, Black people make up 72% of the city’s jails. The city’s demographics have changed in the last century, with the White population declining dramatically. But one thing has long been the case: The police department overwhelmingly targets Black people — no matter the racial makeup of the city during any given period.
Philly police have been responsible for the shooting deaths of countless Black people since its inception, but only two officers have ever been convicted — once in 1870 and again in 1978, according to the Inquirer. In 1985, Philly police shot and bombed a compound full of MOVE activists, killing six adults and five children. The sole adult survivor, Ramona Africa, was convicted as a result of the fatal confrontation. Wallace was killed just a few blocks away from where the bombing happened 35 years ago.
“That really drives home this idea that the police can really kill Black and Brown people with impunity and never be punished for it,” Saint says. “The most that happens is a settlement, a wrongful death lawsuit or something. And that money comes from the taxpayers! There’s really no meaningful accountability built into the system.”
Taxpayers have paid for millions in damages in recent decades alone for everything from Philly police lying and planting evidence to “nickel rides,” in which a person is handcuffed in a police wagon and battered during an intentionally rough ride. The Fraternal Order of Police even fought to have years of police discipline overturned. The city paid over $1 million to disgraced officers as a result. Perhaps the most turbulent era in the city’s police history is the reign of former police commissioner and mayor Frank Rizzo, known for his overt racism and policies to match. In 1967, Rizzo assigned dozens of officers to deal with a group of protesting students. Famously, he yelled, “Get their Black asses!” As if his position weren’t clear enough, during his tenure as mayor, Rizzo declared, “The way to treat criminals is spacco il capo” — Italian for “break their heads.” The Department of Justice once even filed a lawsuit against Rizzo for police violence.
“Rizzo is this almost saintly figure in the lives of White ethnic Philadelphians as a sign of political ascendance,” says Gene Demby, NPR correspondent and co-host of Code Switch. “He had this really punitive, really aggressive approach to policing in Philadelphia that White people actively wanted. It’s important to remember that the Philadelphia Police Department has actively sought to nod to White people in really explicit ways that it was doing the bidding of the White public in the city. That’s true in a lot of cities.”
In response to Black communities’ rightful disdain for Rizzo, the city erected a statue in his honor in 1998 (seven years after his death). The statue was finally removed some 22 years later in June 2020 amid national protests against police violence. The removal fell into a long list of symbolic, lackluster efforts to repair the inherently fraught relationship between the city’s police and its Black population. Reform attempts have tackled everything from Philly’s notorious stop-and-frisk policy to homicide interrogations. As abolitionist activists and organizers have long noted, though, reform efforts largely allocate more power and resources to police. As it turns out, police often even violate their own guidelines, as was the case over the summer when officers tear-gassed a group of trapped protesters during the George Floyd uprisings. (The Philadelphia City Council recently passed a ban on using supplies like tear gas, pepper spray, and rubber bullets during protests.)
The city’s police history is filled with failed attempts to establish civilian oversight entities. The department’s internal affairs division handled complaints for decades, but a 1995 investigation found the department to be largely ineffective in holding police accountable and in reducing harm to the public. Residents have criticized the existing Police Advisory Commission, established in 1994, for failing to provide adequate oversight. Today, “risk algorithms” use racially biased data and geography to determine the fate of Black people swept into Philly’s probation system; a University of Pennsylvania professor created the algorithm.
“There have been 200 years of bad action and 200 years of attempted reforms.”
Police violence and incarceration aren’t the only manifestations of racism in the city, though. A 2018 report found that Black Philadelphians are twice as likely to live in poverty than White residents. Predatory lending practices plague aspiring property owners, and predominantly Black public schools go chronically underfunded. It is for these reasons that abolitionist organizers in the city are calling for leaders to withdraw funding and power from policing and invest in communities.
Christopher R. Rogers, an organizer with Police Free Penn, has spent months working alongside students, alumni, and staff at the University of Pennsylvania, plus Philly residents, to demand that the private Ivy League school disband its police force and invest in Philadelphia public schools instead. There are similar movements at Drexel University and Temple University. Penn’s website boasts its status as employing the largest private police department in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
“Philadelphia is [known as] the poorest big city in the U.S., so there are ways in which Philadelphia police are being made to account for all the symptoms of structural poverty that are happening,” Rogers says. “There’s also this idea [that] problems of racial capitalism and structural disadvantage are now given to the police to manage. We have a layer of Black politicians that are so invested in reforms and think that the only tools we have to combat these issues is police. That conversation has been shifting this summer and I hope it will continue to do so.”
The legacy of Philly police is marked by violence, overt racism, and structural oppression with Wallace being the latest victim of this arm of the carceral state. With that, it is important to look to the past to contextualize the present and inform the future. This was Saint’s vision when he proposed the “Black and Blue” report to the Inquirer earlier this year. His team has recently added Wallace’s name to the long list of Black people killed by police in Philly.
“My hope is that this timeline becomes a lasting resource so that conversations about policing in Philadelphia don’t start from zero,” Saint says. “They should start from an understanding that there have been 200 years of bad action and 200 years of attempted reforms. We need to do something radically different, or this timeline is going to keep growing.”