The Supreme Court Leaves the Americans with Disabilities Act Intact

Teresa Sheehan has survived being shot by the police five times; she has survived the challenges of a psychiatric disability; and she has now survived a challenge at the Supreme Court.

In 2008, Teresa Sheehan was living in a group home for people with serious mental health issues, and experiencing a mental health crisis. Recognizing that Sheehan needed help, a social worker called the police to take her to the hospital. Within minutes of arriving, the police had shot Ms. Sheehan five times.

Teresa Sheehan, however, lived and sued the city of San Francisco for violating her rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The city then appealed her case all the way to the Supreme Court. When the city asked the Supreme Court to hear the case, it told the court it should decide if the ADA applied to detentions and arrests — a position so surprising, especially for San Francisco, that the city later, in its briefs and oral argument, backed away from it.

The city argued that the police officers were justified in shooting Ms. Sheehan because she had threatened them. Ms. Sheehan argued that the officers should have taken her mental disability into account and used time, patience, and communication to resolve the situation rather than responding with force.

This week, the United States Supreme Court declined to rule for either side on this issue. Because the city did not present any argument on whether the ADA applies to police encounters of this type, the court dismissed the question without ruling on it – an uncommon procedure called "dismissed as improvidently granted." They did say the officers couldn't be sued as individuals.

If the court's opinion doesn't resolve much about police use of deadly force, it brings to light an often overlooked fact in police shootings: According to the best evidence, approximately half of people killed by police are people with disabilities.

We know how to reduce these numbers. Police departments around the country — including departments in Texas, Tennessee and Florida — have adopted crisis intervention trainings and de-escalation strategies to help police officers safely resolve confrontations. Coordination with mental health professionals and clear police department policies, practices, and assessments all provide resources and expectations that can change officer behavior.

Police can and must learn how to de-escalate where appropriate – by differentiating actual danger from perceived danger and by mitigating  rather than exacerbating threats. These approaches have repeatedly demonstrated better, safer outcomes for both people with disabilities and the police.

But wait: Wouldn't this make sense for people who do not have disabilities as well?

Indeed.

The use of de-escalation techniques is as important for the general public as it is for people with disabilities. While the problem before the court involved law enforcement's obligations to people with disabilities, the issue, of course, is much broader. When the police "perceive" a threat, how can they be trained to de-escalate rather than shoot? How do we move away from a model of law enforcement that uses a military approach to conflict and move back to a model that protects and serves the public?

Calm, reasoned de-escalation is not just the right thing for police to do for people with disabilities. It's the right thing to do for everyone. Period.

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Mass Independent

I work in the mental health field in New England, directly with clients, and have been present with police called to a potentially violent situation with client in several states. Fortunately, most of the police in the area were training, or had alliances to the local mental health agency providers, and that made a great difference in the outcomes of the incidents. When they are patient, compassionate and trained, the police can provide a great service to the disabled. These alliances with mental health providers should be adopted across the country. And of course, the same qualities should apply to ordinary citizens and minorities.

Anonymous

The police are the ones with the training and hired to be above the average person. Dealing with the police makes common people nervous and many people say things they do not mean. Physically harming a person for things they say uncontrollably is wrong.

CopVictim

AMEN!! I'm so sick of people acting like police and citizens are equally accountable. There's nothing equal about one group ganging up on individuals with deadly and non-lethal weapons at their fingertips, and the authority to force you to do or endure anything they say, order, touch, hit, or pin to the ground!!!
Do both parties write the "incident report"? No! Do both parties face the possibility of arrest, jail, or court judges to defend themselves? No!! Do individuals have a ready-made support system who will agree with everything you say happened?? Of course not!!

Anonymous

It seems to me that "The Cabal", who controls the U.S. Government, Military and Police Forces has decided people on disability are a burden to the financial welfare of the country. In other words, they are targeting people "on disability" or "collecting social security". It was OK for them to take the money but now they don't want to give it back. I'm just sayin'.

Anonymous

POLICE OFFICERS FROM THE SCHOOL DISTRICT OF PALM BEACH COUNTY FLORIDA ARE NOT AN EXCEPTION FOR IGNORING ADA LAW. THEY BELIEVE THEY HAVE THE RIGHT TO QUESTION INDIVIDUALS WITH PHYSICAL DISABILITES ABOUT THEIR SPECIFIC MEDICAL IMPAIRMENTS ALTHOUGH THEY ARE NOT LICENSED HEALTH CARE PROFESSIONALS NOR POSSESS THE BASIC EDUCATION WHATSOEVER FOR UNDERSTANDING. SUCH OFFICERS HAVE THE HIGHEST EDUCATION LEVEL ACHIEVED AS FAR AS GED, HIGH SCHOOL DIPLOMAS AND NO TRAINING WHATSOEVER ON A GRADUATE/DOCTORATE LEVEL AS PHYSICIANS, ATTORNEYS AND OTHER PROFESSIONS WITH HIGHER LEVELS OF EDUCATION AND OVERALL INTELLIGENCE. ABUSE BY THESE OFFICERS IS VERY COMMON IN PBC CONSIDERING THE MAJORITY OF THEM ARE FORMER NYPD DROP OUTS WHO HAVE RETIRED TO SOUTH FLORIDA FOR PART TIME INCOME AND BENEFITS ALTHOUGH ACTUAL LAW ENFORCEMENT AGENCIES ON A COUNTY, CITY, STATE AND EVEN FEDERAL LEVEL CONSDIER THIS SPECIFIC POLICE DEPARTMENT AS MERE SECURITY GUARDS WHO DO NOT IN FACT HAVE THE BASIC TRAINING TO PROTECT AND SECURE SCHOOL ZONES WHICH LEADS TO INJURIES AND ACCIDENTS DUE TO THEIR OVERALL INCOMPETENCE. THEIR COMMANDERS, SUPERVISORS AND SERGEANTS ARE EXAMPLES OF TRUE CORRUPTION JUST AS THE REPUTATION OF THE NYPD WHERE SOME OF THESES OFFICERS HAVE ORIGINATED FROM PRIOR TO RELOCATION. THE STATE OF FLORIDA OFFICE OF THE GOVERNOR SHOULD RECONSIDER THE TERMINATION OF THIS COMPLETE WASTE OF RESOURCE AND TAXPAYERS DOLLARS CONSIDERING THAT THESE OFFICERS DO NOT IN FACT FROM MY OWN EXPERIENCE POSSESS ANY REGARD WHATSOEVER FOR PROTECTING SCHOOL CHILDREN FROM HARM. IN CONTRATS, THEY ARE KNOWN TO INTIMIDATE, HARRASS AND ABUSE THEIR AUTHORITIES WITH THEIR COMPLETE LACK OF RESPECT, PROFESSIONALISM, COURTESY AND OVERALL BASIC KNOWLEDGE ON WHAT IT TRULY SIGNIFIES TO BE AN ACTUAL "LAW ENFORCEMENT OFFICER." THESE ARE MERE SECURITY GUARDS WITH ACCESS TO WEAPONS WITH UNSTABLE BEHVIOR AND REPUTATIONS WHICH WOULD BE DANGEROUS TO BOTH STUDENTS AND STAFF MEMBERS OF THE PALM BEACH COUNTY SCHOOL DISTRICT.

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