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How Police Can Stop Shooting People With Disabilities

Claudia Center,
Former Senior Staff Attorney, ACLU Disability Rights Program
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March 20, 2015

Hundreds of Americans with disabilities die each year in police encounters, and many more are seriously injured. On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral argument in a case about one of these interactions.

In San Francisco v. Sheehan, police were called to take Teresa Sheehan – a woman having a psychiatric emergency – to the hospital. Instead of helping Ms. Sheehan get treatment, the officers ended up shooting her five times. She survived and sued. At issue is whether and how the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) applies to interactions between police and people with disabilities.

The Supreme Court is weighing in against a backdrop of news stories detailing a seemingly unending stream of officer-involved shootings. The dead and wounded are mostly persons with mental disabilities and young men of color. Many – such as Jason Harrison, Anthony Hill, and Kajieme Powell – are both.

Police shootings of persons with mental disabilities tend to follow a pattern. Someone calls the police about a person in crisis. The police arrive, but the person in crisis fails to immediately follow police commands, not because the person is a “criminal” but because they are experiencing a crisis related to their mental disability.

In response to the person’s noncompliance, the officers start shouting and draw their weapons. They may surround the individual or spray them with mace. The crisis escalates. In a panicked effort to resist, the person grabs a nearby object – a knife, a screwdriver, a pen, a mop. The officers fire. Usually the disabled person dies.

There is a safer way for police to interact with persons with mental disabilities in crisis. In communities across the country, officers are trying to resolve these situations without resort to lethal force by using accepted crisis intervention and de-escalation tools, including calm communication, collaboration with mental health resources, physical containment of the individual from a distance, and patience.

These kinds of strategies should be considered reasonable accommodations under the ADA, as the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled. Their use could have prevented the near-fatal shooting of Ms. Sheehan.

In Ms. Sheehan’s case, the officers knew from the outset that they were dealing with a disability crisis situation. When they found Ms. Sheehan quiet and contained within her room, they had the opportunity to use their crisis intervention training. They could have surveyed the premises, consulted with command on strategies, and used calm communication to try to convince Ms. Sheehan to go with them to the psychiatric hospital.

They didn’t.

Without a clear plan for a safe interaction, the officers entered Ms. Sheehan’s locked second-story room without her permission. Twice. The second time they did so with force, shouting, spraying mace, and with guns drawn. When Ms. Sheehan brandished a bread knife, the officers fired multiple times at close range. She almost died. She spent months in the hospital and rehab and has permanent physical injuries.

The safer strategies are neither expensive nor complicated, but their implementation requires a commitment to change. Law enforcement must adopt ADA-compliant policies, practices, and trainings that require safer policing strategies for people with disabilities and that honestly assess bad outcomes after the fact.

If the Supreme Court rules that Ms. Sheehan somehow is not protected by the ADA, then the decades-long movement to achieve safer police interactions with individuals with disabilities will suffer a devastating setback. Such an outcome could eliminate one of the few legal mandates available to combat the terrible cycle of avoidable police shootings and killings. A call for help shouldn’t result in death.

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