Philadelphia city police lieutenant dies of COVID-19

(Photo via Flickr Commons)

(*This story was updated at 3:17 p.m. on Monday, 4/6/20)

By John N. Mitchell and Michael D’Onofrio

PHILADELPHIA — A Philadelphia police lieutenant is the first city employee to die in the coronavirus outbreak.

Lt. James Walker, 59, died Sunday at Abington Hospital, the Montgomery County Coroner’s Office confirmed.

Lt. James Walker (Philadelphia Police Department photo)

A member of the police department for more than three decades, Walker served in the traffic division. His death drew an outpouring of grief as friends and colleagues acknowledged his passing on social media.

Walker was the second active-duty officer to die in the last month. Officer James O’Connor IV was fatally shot in the line of duty on March 13; he was posthumously promoted to sergeant.

“Another devastating blow to the Police Department and Walker family with the tragic loss of Lieutenant James Walker from the Traffic District to an illness,” tweeted Inspector Verdell Johnson on Monday morning. “Please keep the family in prayer.”

Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 5 President John McNesby also expressed his sorrow in a written statement.

“It’s with a heavy heart that we send our deepest condolences to this officer’s family,” the statement said. “We should never forget the sacrifices of our officers and those on the front lines battling this pandemic and working tirelessly to keep our great city safe.”

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Mayor Jim Kenney, speaking Monday afternoon during the city’s regular coronavirus update, also expressed his condolences to Walker’s family and the police department.

“This weekend, we lost a friend, a colleague, a family member, a hero,” Kenney said. “Any death is tragic, but today it hits close to home. We have seen the first death in our family of city employees.

“The pain for Lt. Walker’s brothers and sisters on the force is compounded by their recent loss of Sgt. James O’Connor, another life that could not be mourned fully due to the gathering restrictions surrounding COVID-19. This is a heartbreaking reminder that the virus is affecting people throughout our community, especially those on the front lines.”

Whether Walker died in the line of duty remains uncertain as the city continues to investigate how he contracted the disease.

“We are currently in the process of understanding the circumstances that led to Lt. Walker becoming ill and we will certainly take appropriate measures if and when that becomes clear,” City Managing Director Brian Abernathy said.

Walker joined the department on June 22, 1987, a police spokesperson said in an email. Walker planned to retire in December. He was survived by his wife and adult daughter.

Exactly where Walker was assigned in recent weeks — either on desk duty or out in the field — was not known on Monday, Abernathy said.

The lieutenant’s death has not triggered any departmental policy changes for officers working during the pandemic, city officials said. Officers are currently not wearing face masks.

Last month, Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw issued directives to help protect officers from the spread of the virus, including limiting arrests for some crimes.

City officials continued to refuse to divulge how many police officers have tested positive for coronavirus and been quarantined.

Abernathy said the police department’s staffing level “remains consistent” and sick-leave usage has not changed compared to before the pandemic.

John N. Mitchell and Michael D’Onofrio are reporters for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared.