The case started like too many others involving mentally ill individuals and the police: a call to police for help. The San Francisco officers who reported to the group home knew Teresa Sheehan was mentally ill and in deteriorating condition when they reported to the scene, and they knew she was perceived as dangerous to others. Their job was to transport her safely to a mental health facility for involuntary detention and treatment.
But the scenario ended with police firing six shots on Sheehan. Although the force was deadly, she survived, and filed a lawsuit arguing that officers had a responsibility under federal law to consider her mentally disability. Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, thus entering into the conversation on the limits of officer deadly force at a time when the topic is the subject of national attention.
Unlike recent outrage over failure to file criminal charges against police, this case is not about cops’ criminal liability. It’s about whether cops are obligated to take special precautions in using deadly force — and in entering an individual’s home without a warrant or permission — when they know an individual was mentally ill. Federal appeals courts have come to differing conclusions about whether the Americans with Disabilities Act even applies to arrests. But the court that decided this case, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, said it does.
A Supreme Court decision on this issue could have major implications, because deadly force against mentally ill individuals is particularly common. A study by the Portland Press Herald in Maine found that nearly half of people shot by police between 2000 and 2012 were mentally ill, and that police lack proper training on defusing deadly conflicts. A KQED review in San Francisco this year found a similar proportion of mentally ill victims. In several other cities including Portland, Oregon, and Albequerque, New Mexico, Department of Justice investigations have concluded that officers have systematically used more force than necessary against the mentally ill, leading to deaths or serious injuries in many instances.
Part of the problem is that the typical strategies used by officers when faced with suspects they perceive as violent have an adverse impact on the mentally ill. Which is why special police training focuses on tactics for dealing with mentally ill individuals, and protocol in some departments requires officers to call in special crisis teams.
The scenario involving Sheehan posed significant challenges to officers. Social worker Heath Hodge believed Sheehan’s schizophrenia had deteriorated to “gravely disabled” after Sheehan stopped taking her medication, and called police for help transporting her to a mental health facility for involuntary commitment and treatment.
When police showed up at the San Francisco group home where Sheehan lived without a warrant, Sheehan “reacted violently,” wielding a knife and telling the officers she would kill them. In response, officers safely retreated to a hallway. “The officers called for backup,” the Ninth Circuit decision explained, “but rather than waiting for backup or taking other actions to maintain the status quo or de-escalate the situation, the officers drew their weapons and forced their way back into Sheehan’s room, presumably to disarm, subdue and arrest her, and to prevent her escape (although there do not appear to have been any means of escape available). Sheehan once again threatened the officers with a knife, causing the officers to shoot Sheehan five or six times.”
Sheehan argued that officers failed to reasonably accommodate her disability by “forcing their way back into her room without taking her mental illness into account and without employing tactics that would have been likely to resolve the situation without injury to herself or others.”
And expert witness Lou Reiter provided testimony that officers, in fact, did not follow that protocol at all. He said officers are trained not to agitate or excite individuals who are mentally ill, to “respect the person’s comfort zone, use nonthreatening communications and to employ the passage of time to their advantage.” He also cited materials used by the San Francisco Police Department that advises officers to request backup, to calm the situation, to communicate, to move slowly, to assume a quiet, nonthreatening manner, to take time to assess the situation and to “give the person time to calm down.”
“Reiter deemed the officers’ second entry into Sheehan’s home tactically unreasonable under those policies,” finding that the officers should have awaited back-up and considered seeking a warrant.
The question before the Supreme Court is not whether cops were in the right or the wrong; it is simply whether Sheehan can proceed with a civil suit against police for failing to accommodate her disability. The case could have implications for how police conduct themselves in a wide range of scenarios — many in which the individual shot by police was not carrying any weapon at all. But only eight justices will decide the issue, with one of the more liberal justices, Stephen G. Breyer, recusing himself because his brother, a federal trial judge, was involved in the case at an earlier stage.