It happened again, and it is relentless. On October 26, Walter Wallace, a 27-year-old Philadelphia man, was shot multiple times by police and killed. His family had called 911 to get help for Walter’s mental health emergency – just as they would have if he were having a heart attack. What happened instead was that Walter’s mother, who tried to protect him when armed police arrived at the scene, watched what no mother should ever see and what should have never happened. This happened only weeks after 27-year-old Ricardo Munoz, who lived with schizophrenia, was killed in a police encounter that unfolded in a similar way in Lancaster, also in Pennsylvania.
We mourn with the families, friends and communities of the victims of these tragic and needless losses, just as we mourned when Fountain House member Deborah Danner – a 66 year old woman with schizophrenia who was experiencing psychiatric symptoms, was the victim of a police shooting in her own Bronx apartment in 2016 as part of a mental health call.
One in four deaths at the hands of police are people having a mental health emergency. They are disproportionately Black and other people of color, like Walter and Ricardo. In New York City, over the last five years, 14 of the 16 people with mental illness killed in police encounters were Black or other persons of color. As our nation grapples with racial injustice, and the structural inequities that empower it, we cannot forget that people living with mental illness, especially Black and brown Americans, are met with the additional stigma and discrimination that accompanies mental health in this country. This deadly brew of injustice is taking too many lives, and requires that we reframe our understanding, and our response.
When Walter and Ricardo needed help, their families called 911 requesting an ambulance, just as most of us would do when we have a health challenge. When 911 brings the police as first responders, it’s a dangerous situation for people in a mental health emergency. When police arrive on the scene, they too often are not a solution but a problem to our family members and friends in crisis who likely are already feeling intense confusion, stress and anxiety.
As a coalition of community-based psychiatric rehabilitation programs, known as Clubhouses, which work with people living with mental illness to chart their own recovery, we know that many crises can be averted with community-based solutions – they are preventative just as a healthy diet is preventative for heart disease. When there is a crisis, we also know that mental health professionals, ideally working with peers with lived experience, provide the best solutions to these tragedies. Many police recognize this, and that is why they have collaborated on alternative community policing initiatives. For more than 30 years, the city of Eugene, Oregon, has stopped sending police to respond to nonviolent calls involving individuals experiencing a mental health crisis. Instead, a two-person care team is dispatched, including a nurse or EMT and a crisis worker with mental health experience.
That’s why Fountain House, Clubhouse New York Coalition, and Clubhouses around the country are working together on the Care Responders Campaign to seek alternative, community-crafted and supported health-first solutions. And that’s why Clubhouses across the City support the efforts of CCIT-NYC – a coalition of over 80 organizations advocating for this change here in NYC. The tragic loss of Walter Wallace’s life should be the last one we face.
Ashwin Vasan, M.D., PhD, President and CEO, Fountain House - New York, NY
Sandra McRae-Wright, COMHAR, Open Door Clubhouse - Philadelphia, PA
Angela Gralian, Brooklyn Clubhouse - Brooklyn, NY
Suzanne Stoute, Chelton Loft - New York, NY
Russell Roten, Citiview Connections Clubhouse - Queens, NY
Katrina Grant, East New York Clubhouse - Brooklyn, NY
Michelle Rodriguez, Fountain House Bronx - Bronx, NY
Blessing Nwulu, Job Connections Center Clubhouse - Brooklyn, NY
Elizabeth Padilla, Lantern House - Bronx, NY
Dice Cooper, Lifelinks Clubhouse - Queens, NY
Samuel James, Open Door Clubhouse - Queens , NY
Deborah Kaplan, The Other Place Clubhouse - New York, NY
Juliet Douglas, David Plotka, Venture House - Queens, NY
Faqueni Ravel, Venture House Staten Island - Staten Island, NY
Summer Berman, Fresh Start Clubhouse - Ann Arbor, MI
Kailey Fiedler-Gohlke, MA, CRC, Hero House NW - Seattle, WA
Lori D’Angelo, Ph.D., Magnolia Clubhouse - Cleveland, OH
Eric Estrada, San Antonio Clubhouse - San Antonio, TX