Sunday, November 27, 2022 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Philadelphia Police Officers Sued for Killing of Walter Wallace Jr.

The first complaint over the 2020 police killing recounts a single minute of horror preserved by the officers' own body-worn cameras.

PHILADELPHIA (CN) — It was the third time that day police had responded to the residence on West Philadelphia, but in less than 60 seconds it was all over.

Walter Wallace Jr. was killed in a hail of about a dozen bullets just before 4 p.m. on Oct. 26, 2020.

His death, and the release of footage from the scene, brought hundreds of protesters. On Wednesday, the 27-year-old's estate told the story again in a civil complaint against the officers responsible, Thomas Munz and Sean Matarazzo.

Combined, Munz and Mararazzo had a total of five years experience on the force. Though they arrived at the scene knowing that Wallace was carrying a knife, the estate says they also had ample evidence that he was an individual in obvious mental distress.

As Wallace ambled from the house in "a mentally disturbed manner," according to the complaint, "his wife screamed over, and over again, 'He's mental.'"

But the estate says the officers were not interested in diffusing the crisis peacefully. "At precisely 3:48:54, while [Wallace] was positioned behind a car, being held by his mother, one of the defendant officers directed the other officer to 'shoot him,'” according to the complaint.

The estate notes that Wallace had not raised the knife, had not advanced at the officers in a threatening manner and indeed did nothing "that could be perceived as a threat" to anyone at the scene. Indeed, as the officers' own body-cam footage shows, there was even a car standing in between them and Wallace.

They fired anyway.

“Wallace was incapacitated after the first gunshot, and he turned around to shield himself, however the defendant officers continued to fire ... continuing to strike him in the side and the back well after he was incapacitated in a manner that was excessive, unnecessary, and constituted an assault and battery on the [Wallace] and was unauthorized under the law,” the complaint says. 

After Wallace’s death, the Philadelphia Inquirer quoted the man’s father wondering: “Why didn’t they use a Taser?”

The complaint in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas does not name the Philadelphia Police Department as a defendant but holds up the absence of stun-guns as a key failure. 

After it was reported in 2013 that Philadelphia’s officers had shot and killed more than 400 people in the last six years, the force asked the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate its policies — particularly those that contributed its high number of officer involved shootings.

The Justice Department released its findings in 2015, saying that the Philadelphia Police Department had limited distribution of Tasers in the department by tying their supply to a requirement that officers first complete crisis intervention training.

The report recommended that the department decouple stun guns and crisis intervention training, saying all uniformed officers should be made to carry "electronic-control weapons" on their belts at all times.

"ECWs should be standard issue weapons for all PPD Officers assigned to uniformed enforcement units,” according to the report.

Still from video shows the body of Walter Wallace Jr. on Oct. 26 after he was shot about 10 times by Philadelphia police officers. (Image via Courthouse News)

But Wallace's estate, represented by Philadelphia attorney Shaka Johnson and Kevin O'Brien of Stampone O'Brien in Cheltenham, says the department failed to incorporate any of the recommendations. 

“Despite these clear directives to the City of Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Police Department, as of October 26, 2020, (and to this day) has refused to comply with these common sense, life saving recommendations despite clear direction to do so from the United States Department of Justice,” the suit states. (Parentheses in original.)

Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw said the week after the shooting that the department would have reforms in place by late 2021. In addition to more deescalation training, she promised to ramp up the department’s coordination with mental health specialists.

"Under the new program, when behavioral health crisis calls come into dispatch from police radio, embedded clinical staff will work alongside dispatchers to determine the most appropriate response," said Outlaw at a November press conference.

A few weeks later, Philadelphia local news outlet BillyPenn reported that Philadelphia was pursuing a five-year, $13.8 million deal that would provide all city officers with Tasers.

Mike Neilon, spokesman for Philadelphia’s chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police, did not immediately return a request for comment Thursday. A Philadelphia Police Department spokesperson declined to comment Thursday, citing city policy on pending litigation.

Wallace’s death gained widespread attention last year after a video of the scene went viral. The footage shows Wallace walking toward two officers who back away and order him to put the knife down; the officers then fire multiple shots at Wallace, who falls to the ground; and Wallace’s mother screams as she runs out in front of his body, followed by angry family and neighbors. 

“Y’all ain’t had to give him that many fucking shots!” the man recording the scene yells to police in the footage. 

“Given that Wallace was holding a kitchen knife, and made no threatening motions or actions towards anyone, no use of deadly force was reasonable or authorized under the law, and the decision to shoot Wallace and kill him was unauthorized and an excessive use of force by the defendant officers and constituted an assault and battery upon the [Wallace],” the estate's 17-page complaint states.

Against a backdrop of nationwide protests sparked the police killing George Floyd in May 2020, hundreds came out after Wallace's shooting to demonstrate against systemic racism and police brutality.

Protests in reaction to Wallace’s death prompted Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf to call in the National Guard and enact a 9 p.m. curfew for the city. More than 200 people were arrested and more than 50 officers hurt in the unrest. Today in Minneapolis, the trial of the officer who killed Floyd is in its fourth day. 

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.