Sharon Lampkin’s son, Jevon, was experiencing a severe manic depressive episode in 2005 when he was shot and killed by Philadelphia police at Ninth and Market Streets.
The 23-year-old Voorhees resident had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder a month earlier and had been awaiting follow-up care when he was spotted walking around Center City naked and in an agitated state. According to news reports, he tussled with a cop inside a police cruiser who wound up fatally wounding him.
Lampkin, a hardworking, single mother fell into a deep depression afterward. Unable to focus on doing her clients’ hair, she lost the beauty salon she once owned in Jersey. Now a cosmetology instructor, it took more than a decade for her to feel normal again.
But the trauma and hurt she experienced in the aftermath of her firstborn’s death nearly 16 years ago came rushing back after watching a cell phone video of Philadelphia police fatally wounding Walter Wallace Jr. in West Philly last month. Wallace, who also suffered from bipolar disorder, had been armed with a knife shortly before police shot him multiple times.
Seeing that stirred something inside Lampkin which prompted her to email me and express how hearing Wallace’s mother’s screams had “pierced my heart. I know exactly how she felt at that moment. We have one thing in common. We both had our sons killed by Philadelphia police during a mental health crisis."
“Like most, I’m struggling to understand why the city has not hired mental health professionals dedicated strictly to intervention and de-escalation of those in crisis and equipped with nonlethal ways to subdue someone by now,” she wrote.
“People in full manic states are many times unable to follow instruction due to the part of the brain affected by their illness making them incapable of normal rational behavior …," Lampkin added. "Police should not be responding to mental health calls unassisted.”
She’s right about that. America is in the midst of a national discussion about the need for racial justice and police reform. While we’re at it, we also need to focus on the treatment by police of the mentally ill because what happened with Wallace wasn’t unique.
Earlier this year, Daniel Prude was reportedly outside in the cold, naked and experiencing a psychotic break when Rochester, N.Y., police were summoned. Officers placed a hood over his head because he claimed to have the coronavirus. Police said he resisted arrest so they restrained him and he lost consciousness. Prude died a week later.
Just three days before Wallace was shot, he had been treated at the West Philadelphia Consortium, a mental health crisis response center.
After Wallace’s death, I heard from mothers of children with mental health issues who could relate to what his family experienced. They pointed out that their children needed help — not guns aimed at them.
As for Lampkin, she’s learned a lot about mental illness since her son’s death and has tried to educate those around her, especially his friends and classmates from Eastern Camden County Regional High School. For his funeral, she made fliers explaining bipolar disorder and placed them inside the funeral program.
“I desperately sought answers to understand about a topic I knew nothing about,” she told me recently via email. “I didn’t understand how my healthy, gentle child got sick in 31 days then was taken from me so violently. He was really a good kid who never gave me anything but joy. I raised him in Voorhees, N.J., trying to give him a good life and keep him safe and alive as a single mother. I feel like I still failed him.”
The same way the system failed Walter Wallace Jr.