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Advocates Beg San Francisco To Drop Police Shooting Case, Warn Supreme Court Will Make Things Worse

CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK
CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK

This year, the U.S. Supreme Court is set to review a case about when police can shoot the mentally ill. The case raises important, fundamental questions about how police deal with individuals they know to be mentally ill, a population that is dramatically more likely to be killed by police, according to available data.

But civil rights groups are imploring the city of San Francisco not to let the U.S. Supreme Court hear the case, because they are confident it will make the law worse. In a letter to city officials, a coalition led by the American Civil Liberties Union and a host of disability rights groups asked the city to drop its appeal, warning that it imperils the Americans With Disabilities Act, “the most comprehensive civil rights law for Americans with disabilities.”

The appeal comes out of a case in which police shot a woman they knew was severely mentally disabled, in response to what was supposed to be a call for help. The force was deadly, but the plaintiff survived. Victim Teresa Sheehan sued, and successfully argued that the Americans with Disabilities Act should apply to her interaction with police, meaning that police are liable for civil rights violations when they don’t take mental disability into account. The city appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court to challenge the the notion that police must make accommodations for mentally ill suspects who are deemed armed and violent.

Disability groups, unsurprisingly, disagree with the city of San Francisco and believe that police, like other officials, should be required to take disability into account even when exercising their arrest power or using deadly force. But the position of the city of San Francisco is not their greatest concern.

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Their real problem is that the U.S. Supreme Court is likely to go much further than even the city of San Francisco is asking for, given past Roberts Court positions on civil rights issues. As the groups write in their letter, “While San Francisco may intend to craft arguments that it believes will limit the damage to individuals’ rights under the ADA, it will have little control over what the Supreme Court does.”

The issue of police shootings of the mentally ill is among the most critical as debate heightens over police shootings generally. Studies in several cities have found that about half of police shooting victims are mentally ill, and that the mentally ill are disproportionate victims of excessive police force. Too often, these shootings started as calls for help. Part of the problem is lack of police training on dealing with the mentally ill. Another part is whether police are held accountable when they fail to comport with standards even in cities that do have standards for dealing with mentally ill individuals.

But because the Roberts Court is so inclined to rule against civil rights enforcement, and to do so in a more sweeping manner than necessary to resolve the case, the disability rights community would rather let battles over an issue of national import and focus play out in lower courts, rather than risk Supreme Court intervention.

This approach is not limited to the ADA. On other civil rights issues, advocates have fought as hard as possible not to get a good result at the Supreme Court, but to keep their issues off the docket altogether. On the issue of housing discrimination, for example, advocates twice averted a Supreme Court ruling by securing settlements in those cases before the U.S. Supreme Court had the chance to rule on the cases, which had been accepted for review. This year, they may not have that option and many believe the Roberts Court is almost certain to strike down a theory of discrimination that has been crucial to many of the most important fair housing cases.

And the disability community has also sought in recent years to avert other U.S. Supreme Court rulings. In 2012, then-Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire opted not to appeal a federal court ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, after vigorous campaigning from the disability community.

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As in Sheehan’s case, the case came out of a lawsuit initially brought by individuals with disabilities seeking to enforce their rights. And the same federal appeals court, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, sided with the plaintiffs in a lawsuit seeking to block cuts to in-home care that could land the disabled in institutions. Gregoire was considering appealing the ruling to preserve her budget cuts. But as in this case, disability advocates begged her not to let the case go to the high court, warning that the justices could go much farther than Gregoire intended and roll back a 1999 U.S. Supreme Court precedent that protected those with disabilities from unnecessary institutionalization under the Americans With Disabilities Act. The groups warned in a letter at the time, “While Washington may intend to craft narrow arguments that it believes will not place Olmstead in jeopardy, the state will have little control over what the Supreme Court says concerning the ADA’s integration mandate.”