SCHENECTADY – The police shooting of a man at his apartment last year was sufficiently justified that no criminal charges are warranted, but the circumstances show the need for police to call mental health professionals in obvious mental health cases, state Attorney General Letitia James’ Office of Special Investigation concluded in a report released Thursday.
Michael Wallace, 34, was shot to death at his apartment in the Joseph Allen Apartments on Hamilton Hill on March 24, 2020, after briefly emerging from his apartment with what police believed was a gun, though it turned out to be a pellet gun.
The investigation was handled by the Attorney General’s Office as part of a policy that authorizes a state investigation of police shootings when suspects are unarmed or the circumstances are murky. The investigation has lasted a year, as investigators received body-worn camera footage, 911 recordings, and medical records, and conducted hours of interviews with police and civilian witnesses.
The investigation “determined that the justification for the use of force in this situation exercised by the Schenectady Police Department could not be disproven beyond a reasonable doubt.”
“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,” James said in a statement accompanying release of the report.
In Wallace’s case, the investigation found that Wallace was involved in two separate encounters with Schenectady police on March 24. In the first incident at about 5:20 a.m., the report states, Wallace called 911, and on the phone was “somewhat incoherent but the fact that he was experiencing a mental health issue was abundantly clear.” Two officers were sent to the apartment and also saw signs of a mental health issue, but left after Wallace and his fiancee assured them he was OK.
About three hours later, a security guard called police to say Wallace had pulled a gun on an employee of the apartment complex. With five officers at the scene, one kicked the door of Wallace’s second-floor apartment and announced their presence. The report said the door abruptly swung open, and Wallace appeared, pointing what appeared to be a pistol in their direction. Two officers fired a total of seven shots; Wallace was struck three times.
Because the apartment door was then closed and a woman quickly came out, police were uncertain whether there was still a threat and waited about two hours for a special operations team to arrive before entering the apartment and finding Wallace unresponsive. He was pronounced dead after being taken to Ellis Hospital.
The weapon that was pointed at the officers was determined to be a CO2 pellet pistol.
The account given by the attorney general’s investigations is consistent with the account Police Chief Eric Clifford gave in the immediate aftermath of the shooting. Clifford told reporters at the time he believed the shooting was justified. The AG’s report agreed, with reservations.
“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,” the report concludes. “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, [the investigation] determined that criminal charges could not be pursued against any officer in this case.”
But the report said the total circumstances underscore the need for communities to develop programs that direct mental health professionals, not police officers, to mental health-related calls for assistance, saying the original early-morning call could have been handled by mental health professions.
“Mr. Wallace was clearly experiencing mental health concerns, and it’s a great tragedy that it resulted in a dangerous and ultimately fatal situation,” James said. “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.”
Clifford issued a response to the report Thursday evening: “The Schenectady Police Department has received the final report issued by the NYS Attorney Generals office. The department is in agreement with the findings and has already begun work in line with their recommendations.
“The Schenectady Police Department now participates in the Schenectady County Unified Communications Centers’ protocol of diverting mental health related calls to Mental Heath support partners (like Northern Rivers) when possible, and has increased the use of mobile crisis services teams (like Catholic Charities) when appropriate. The department would like to thank the New York State Police and the NYS Attorney Generals Office for their professionalism and assistance with the investigation and review of this unfortunate incident.”