Lawyer for Philadelphia man killed by police says murder charges likely unwarranted

PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - The Philadelphia police officers who shot and killed a Black man under mental duress should probably not be charged with murder, a lawyer for the man’s family said on Thursday, saying they lacked training and equipment to handle the situation.

Shaka Johnson made the comments after viewing the bodycam footage of Monday’s incident, in which 27-year-old Walter Wallace Jr. was gunned down by two officers responding to what his relatives say was a call for help with a mental health crisis.

Johnson said the footage shows one of the officers saying “shoot him” before they both fired at Wallace, who was not heeding their orders to drop a knife. He said the footage also showed Wallace dealing with an “obvious mental health crisis.”

While saying he did not think the officers should face murder charges, Johnson added that he hoped the investigation into Wallace’s death would lead to policing reforms to help prevent similar shootings in the future.

He noted that one of the officers was a “rookie” with less than two years on the force.

“It was instant panic from those officers,” said Johnson, a former police officer who is now a criminal defense attorney.

“The city has also failed those police officers. It failed them tremendously. The only remedy the police had in that moment, per their thinking, was their service weapon.”

FILE PHOTO: A police officer investigates inside a store that was looted in unrest following the death of Walter Wallace Jr., a Black man who was shot by police, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S., October 28, 2020. REUTERS/Hannah McKay

Johnson, who was flanked at the briefing by Wallace’s father and mother, said the family would like to see all Philadelphia police officers equipped with tasers. The two officers who fired a total of 14 rounds at Wallace did not have tasers on them.

“I pray things change. I pray we all one day can come together and get along. Cause this gotta stop,”said Kathy Brant, Wallace’s mother, who can be heard on a video of the shooting shared on social media pleading with the officers not to shoot.

John McNesby, the president of the local police union, has defended the officers, who have not been identified publicly, saying they “worked to resolve this incident under a great deal of stress” while noting that Wallace was wielding a knife.

The shooting turned Philadelphia into the latest flashpoint in a months-long series of protests over racism and policing across the United States ignited by the May 25 death of George Floyd, an unarmed African-American man who died after a Minneapolis police officer pinned his neck to the street.

After two nights marked by violence and looting, however, tensions calmed significantly on Wednesday evening after the city set a citywide curfew after 9 p.m. The curfew will not be implemented again on Thursday, the mayor’s office said.

The decision on whether to prosecute the officers will fall to Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, who said on Tuesday he had not decided whether charges were warranted. Krasner did not respond to a request for comment on Thursday.

Johnson said the bodycam footage showed Wallace was not lunging at the officers and estimated he was 1-1/2 car lengths away from the police when they fired. He said the officers had effectively served as judge and jury in the matter.

“The sentence they decided was appropriate for him was death.”

But Johnson also asked those present at his press briefing in front of City Hall to pray for the officers, along with the Wallace’s family. Wallace’s wife, he noted, had just given birth to a daughter.

“There is trauma on both sides of this particular situation,” Johnson said.

Reporting by Hannah McKay in Philadelphia and Nathan Layne in Wilton, Connecticut; Editing by Cynthia Osterman, Rosalba O’Brien ad Tom Brown