By Natasha Brown

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — The police killing of 27-year-old Walter Wallace Jr. has brought more attention to mental illness and the challenges faced by police in dealing with it. Wallace’s death has sparked peaceful demonstrations along with violence and looting, but it also brought to light the importance of addressing mental health.

“When I think about the horrible tragedy of Walter Wallace Jr., I think about how his mother so desperately wanted help and healing for her son,” Dr. Erica Wilkins, program director of the Couple and Family Therapy Program at Thomas Jefferson University, said.

Wallace was shot and killed Monday afternoon after wielding a knife at police, who responded to a call at his home. There had reportedly been numerous calls to his home in the past.

“The visual image of someone can be a source of mental health escalation,” Wilkins said.

Wilkins explains why the response to mental health calls is critical.

“When I’ve had clients that have a psychiatric emergency, as I sit and wait for first responders to arrive, I’m always cognizant of how is this person going to look?” Wilkins said. “Are they going to be showing up in police uniforms? Are they going to be in plainclothes? Are they going to be a racial or ethnic match for my client?”

As part of a police reform plan in Philadelphia, police are looking to add behavioral health experts to mental health calls. Still, some experts see more of a need for trusted and trained community members as a way to diffuse escalating situations.

“Investing in resources that will train community members who can show up in those times and spaces as trusted individuals that look like their neighbors, that are known by their neighbors and can deliver competent help,” Wilkins said.


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