Supreme Court considers impact of disability law on police
On Monday, the nation's highest court will consider how police must comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act when dealing with armed or violent people who have psychiatric problems
By Tami Abdollah and Sam Hananel
LOS ANGELES — The police shooting in Georgia earlier this month of a naked, unarmed man with bipolar disorder spotlights the growing number of violent confrontations between police and the mentally ill — an issue that goes before the Supreme Court this coming week.
At least half the people police kill each year have mental health problems, according to a 2013 report from the Treatment Advocacy Center and the National Sheriffs' Association. On Monday, the nation's highest court will consider how police must comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act when dealing with armed or violent people who have psychiatric problems or other disabilities.
The case involves a 2008 incident in San Francisco in which police responded to a call from a group home for the mentally ill. A resident who suffers from schizophrenia, Teresa Sheehan, threatened to kill her social worker with a knife and locked herself in her room. The social worker asked the police to help restrain Sheehan and get her to a hospital where she could be treated.
The incident ended with officers forcing their way into Sheehan's room and shooting after she charged them with the knife. She survived and filed a lawsuit, claiming police had a duty under the ADA to consider her mental illness and take more steps to avoid a violent confrontation.
The ADA generally requires public officials to make "reasonable accommodations" to avoid discriminating against people with disabilities. But lower courts have split on how the law should apply to police conduct when public safety is at risk.
San Francisco officials argue the law does not require police to make accommodations for an armed and violent suspect who is mentally ill.
"When mental illness manifests in unpredictable, violent behavior as it did in this case, officers must make split-second decisions that protect the public and themselves from harm," the city said in legal papers.
The Georgia incident on March 9 was the latest high-profile police killing of a mentally unstable suspect. Anthony Hill, a U.S. Air Force veteran had stopped taking medication for bipolar disorder. An officer, responding to calls about a naked man acting erratically outside an apartment complex, fatally shot Hill when police say Hill ran toward him and didn't heed orders to stop.
Other shootings have prompted federal investigations. Between 2012 and 2014, the Justice Department found that police departments in Cleveland; Portland, Oregon; and Albuquerque, New Mexico; used excessive force against the mentally ill. Those police departments were required to improve training, protocols and policies for dealing with mentally ill suspects.
Law enforcement groups are keeping a close eye on the Supreme Court case, which they say could undermine police tactics, place officers and bystanders at risk, force departments to spend thousands in new training and open them to additional liability.
The ADA was designed to regulate institutional policies, not an individual officer's behavior, said Darrel W. Stephens, executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, which filed a brief supporting San Francisco.
Stephens said that while departments around the country receive training to de-escalate and avoid using force in a situation with an unstable person, it's not always possible to do so.
But mental health advocates say the ADA requires police to act less aggressively when arresting or detaining people with disabilities. Claudia Center, a senior staff attorney in the American Civil Liberties Union's disability rights program, said the ADA should apply to all situations, especially emergencies when the disabled most need to be accommodated.
"This case is not unusual. There are a lot of Sheehan situations out there where there is an opportunity not to rush in, and take a moment," Center said.
In the Sheehan case, Sgt. Kimberly Reynolds and Officer Katherine Holder at first tried to enter Sheehan's room with a key. When Sheehan threatened them with a knife, the officers closed the door and went back to the hallway. The officers called for backup, but said they weren't sure if Sheehan had a means of escape and were concerned that she might have other weapons inside.
The officers then forced their way in a second time and tried to subdue her with pepper spray. But she continued to come toward them with the knife and the officers shot her five times.
A federal district court sided with the police, ruling that it would be unreasonable to ask officers trying to detain a violent, mentally disabled person to comply with the ADA before protecting themselves and others.
But the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a jury should decide whether it would have been reasonable for the officers to try to defuse the situation and use less confrontational tactics.
Copyright 2015 The Associated Press