New York Attorney General Letitia James’ Office of Special Investigation (OSI), formerly known as the Special Investigations and Prosecutions Unit (SIPU), released its report on the death of Michael Wallace. After a thorough and exhaustive investigation, including evidence from body-worn cameras, 911 recordings, medical records, and many hours of police and civilian witness interviews, OSI determined that the justification for the use of force in this situation exercised by the Schenectady Police Department (SPD) could not be disproven beyond a reasonable doubt.
In the early hours of March 24, 2020, two separate incidents occurred involving Mr. Wallace and members of SPD. The first incident was initiated by a 911 call placed by Mr. Wallace at approximately 5:20 A.M. In his call to 911, Mr. Wallace was somewhat incoherent but the fact that he was experiencing a mental health issue was abundantly clear. Officers were sent to meet Mr. Wallace, and when they arrived at his apartment, he continued to exhibit signs of a mental health issue. His fiancé was with him at the time, and after assurances from Mr. Wallace and his fiancé that he was okay, officers left.
Three hours later, a security guard at Mr. Wallace’s apartment complex placed an emergency call and reported that Mr. Wallace had pulled a gun on an employee of the apartment complex. When SPD officers arrived at the scene, they kicked the door to Mr. Wallace’s apartment and announced their presence. The door abruptly swung open, and Mr. Wallace appeared to be holding a pistol that was aimed at them. SPD officers then opened fire. Mr. Wallace was taken to a nearby hospital where he was pronounced dead. The weapon that was pointed at the officers was later confirmed as a CO2 pellet pistol.
In this case, the critical factor was whether or not the officers reasonably believed that deadly physical force was necessary to defend themselves or another individual from what they reasonably believed to be the use or imminent use of unlawful deadly physical force by another person. Because it was reasonable for the shooting officers to believe that deadly physical force was necessary to defend themselves or other officers from what they believed to be the use or imminent use of deadly physical force by Mr. Wallace, OSI determined that criminal charges could not be pursued against any officer in this case.
However, the totality of the circumstances involved in this tragic incident underscores the need for communities to develop programs that direct mental health professionals, not police officers, to mental health-related calls for assistance, where there is no indication that a police response is needed — such as Mr. Wallace’s initial 911 call. The OSI strongly recommends that SPD and its community partners work toward developing this type of response program for Schenectady.
“This incident highlights the tragic reality that too many of our communities are ill-equipped to handle emergency mental health crises that demand a response from mental health professionals, not police,” said Attorney General James. “Mr. Wallace was clearly experiencing mental health concerns, and it’s a great tragedy that it resulted in a dangerous and ultimately fatal situation. It’s critical that the city of Schenectady and municipalities across the state develop systems that divert mental health calls away from a law enforcement response, and instead, are directed to mental health professionals who are trained to support individuals in these crises. I express my condolences to Michael Wallace’s family, friends, and loved ones, and I will continue to advocate for the change that is desperately needed.”