Police shooting in Baltimore raises questions about how 'defund police' would work

One of the things we’ve heard in the past few weeks is that the “defund police” slogan is a workable proposal because some of the jobs police are currently asked to do could be done by others. For instance, police are often called to scenes where someone with mental problems is in distress. Some organizations have argued those calls should be handled by trained counselors rather than cops. Here’s the coordinator from a group called CAHOOTS in Eugene, Oregon making the case last month:

“In those situations where there’s not a criminal issue, there’s not an emergent threat to the safety of an individual or a neighborhood, why do we need the police to be the ones responding?” Tim Black, Cahoots’s operations coordinator, told MarketWatch. “Why can’t it be folks from that community who are coming with unconditional positive regard and empathy, instead of force?”…

“For the past three decades, we’ve been really demonstrating how public-safety dollars can go to something other than law enforcement,” Black said. “So when we hear these conversations around ‘defund the police’ that are happening now, what we’re hearing is an opportunity to really engage in meaningful dialogue about what public safety actually means.”

I don’t think it’s a crazy proposition. In fact, I think most police officers would probably rather have someone else handle those kind of calls. But an incident in Baltimore this week really puts the whole argument in perspective. What you see in this incident may depend on your priors going into it, but it’s clearly a kind of worst case scenario that needs to be considered before making decisions about police reform. The incident took place early Wednesday morning:

Two police officers shot a man who reportedly pulled a gun on them while experiencing a behavioral crisis in Northeast Baltimore before dawn Wednesday morning, Police Commissioner Michael Harrison said.

The man was critically injured in the shooting, which happened about 3:25 a.m., after police were called to a home in the 5800 block of Falkirk Road — a quiet, residential, tree-lined street near Huber Memorial Church. The call came from the homeowner, a relative of the man, police said.

The relative led officers to the man, who pulled a gun on them, police said, prompting them to shoot him “multiple times,” Harrison said. When officers searched the man, they found a second gun, the police commissioner said.

Today, Baltimore police released the audio of the 911 call along with body camera footage, which you can watch below. You can watch and form your own opinion but here’s what I saw.

First, the family called because the man, whose name is Ricky Walker Jr., was clearly disturbed and having an “episode.” When police finally enter the basement about 10 minutes into this clip, Walker is shouting and seems incoherent. Two officers, who are both black, try to talk to him calmly. Nearly the entire time Walker is standing with his hands above his head. He claims (I don’t know if it’s true) that he is filming everything on a GoPro camera above the door frame. He keeps talking to the camera saying “Please save my life, yo.” It seems like he thinks he’s livestreaming and he’s asking viewers to save him from the police that he believes have entered his house illegally to kill him.

The police talk calmly with Walker for several minutes. One officer keeps repeating that the man’s family invited them in to help him but Walker keeps repeating they they are there illegally. An officer tells the disturbed man that there are medics waiting to help him if he’ll just go upstairs. He doesn’t want to go. In fact, the closer the police get, the more agitated Walker seems to be. He’s not making much sense but he’s pretty clearly afraid.

As the police move around items that fill the basement, Walker seems to get more agitated. He’s talking about being killed and living even after he dies. And suddenly the video freezes and zooms slowly and you see he’s got a gun in his right hand. The video unfreezes and you see him point the gun at one of the officers. Several shots are fired by the police and Walker is down on the floor. After he is shot he repeats, “Please save my life.” He adds, “They shot me in my own house.”

So here’s the question: What should have happened here? This wasn’t a random encounter gone wrong. Police were called to the house along with medics because Walker was raving. They apparently knew he had mental problems and tried to keep him calm. They weren’t quick to get physical. They didn’t pull their guns on him so long as he was unarmed. But ultimately it all went wrong anyway. Walker was critically injured but fortunately survived.

But back to the question: How else should this have been handled? Would you want to send unarmed counselors into that basement? If you did, would they be dead or lying in the hospital now? The Baltimore Police Chief pointed out that medics waited for cops to go in first to make sure Walker wasn’t a threat:

The shooting came amid a renewed national conversation on policing in America, and local activists and experts have expressed concern particularly about incidents in which officers respond to mental health crisis calls.

Harrison said Thursday that while he agrees “with much of the sentiments, it’s important we put this into context with the realities of the safety of all those involved.” He noted that medics stayed outside due to safety concerns, and said any crisis team of mental health providers would need to receive training on how to respond to situations involving individuals who are believed to be armed.

But the VP of a behavioral health group said mental health professionals should have been there:

Adrienne Breidenstine, vice president of policy and communications for Behavioral Health Systems Baltimore, said that seeing police officers “just completely escalates the situation for people.” The group has a 24-hour crisis team that was not called to the scene.

“The video was upsetting to see,” Breidenstine said. “It shows mental health professionals should have been involved with the response, along with police and EMS.”

Notice she says “along with police.” Could this have gone better if mental health professionals had been there? Maybe. I think that’s a reasonable point. But it’s a long way from there to claiming counselors should have been sent into that basement instead of police. Because ultimately, if someone is deranged and ranting like this, it’s always possible they could become violent and counselors aren’t equipped to deal with that.

There’s a bit more to this story. It seems Walker had been arrested 10 days earlier for another episode in which he was found naked with a gun allegedly firing at passing cars. He was hospitalized after that incident. Maryland has “red flag” laws so some wonder why the guns he had at home weren’t taken away. That’s a good question and maybe there is some way this particular incident could have been prevented. But ultimately, something like this is always a possibility and how we decide to handle it as a society doesn’t seem as simple to me as “defund police.”

Here’s the bodycam footage.