High court considers impact of disability law on police
Washington — The Supreme Court is considering whether the Americans With Disabilities Act requires police to take special precautions when trying to arrest armed and violent suspects who are mentally ill.
The justices hear arguments Monday in a dispute over how police in San Francisco dealt with a woman suffering from schizophrenia who had threatened to kill her social worker. Police forced their way into Teresa Sheehan’s room at a group home and then shot her five times after she came at them with a knife.
Sheehan survived and later sued the city, claiming police had a duty under the ADA to consider her mental illness and take more steps to avoid a violent confrontation.
Her attorneys say laws protecting the disabled require police to make reasonable accommodations when arresting people who have mental or physical disabilities. They say police could have used less aggressive tactics, such as waiting for backup and trying to talk to her in a nonthreatening way.
City officials argue the ADA does not require accommodations for armed and dangerous people who are mentally ill and pose a threat to others.
The case has attracted attention from mental health advocates who say that failing to take account of a suspect’s disability often results in unnecessary shootings by police.
Law enforcement groups have also weighed in, saying a ruling in Sheehan’s favor could undermine police tactics, place officers and bystanders at risk and open them to additional liability.
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.
In Sheehan’s case, her social worker called police for help in restraining her so she could be taken to a hospital for treatment. Officers entered her room with a key, but Sheehan threatened them with a knife, so they closed the door and called for backup. But they said they weren’t sure whether Sheehan had a way to escape, and were concerned that she might have other weapons inside.
The officers then forced their way in and tried to subdue her with pepper spray. But she continued to come toward them with the knife and was shot 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 said a jury should decide whether it was reasonable for the officers to use less confrontational tactics.