How Police Can Stop Shooting People With Disabilities

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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Anonymous

This kind of thing happens all too often to Deaf individuals, as well. They cannot hear the officer's commands and are assumed to be "resisting", when they gesture trying to communicate that they are Deaf. Even when the police know the person is Deaf it goes badly all too often. Police need to stop viewing everyone who doesn't immediately hop to their commands as a threat to their lives. That's step one. Empathy and sympathy seem to be sorely lacking amongst a significant segment of law enforcement. That's a problem. I 100% support the idea that the police have the right to defend themselves and others from harm, and sometimes that means using lethal force, but that should be the last recourse, not the first, and they don't have the right to do everything in their power to escalate the situation thereby making it more dangerous for everyone. There is a significant amount of retraining that needs to happen, but I think it goes deeper than that. I think the culture of law enforcement and its us-them mentality needs to shift. It's all us. The police are part of the community not separate from it. Or they should be.

bean bag

A disabled person may not have a mental problem but as being diagnosed makes the opposite person and or persons blind to the fact of their own mistakes and makes it a better process of being used for any given reasons under all circumstances for a disabled person which starts and identifys perfection of mental issues and circumstances illegally processed by law which cannot and are subjectiable and it unlawfully companions for yearly terms and abuse to the processors not the person is to be leagally detained. But at Constance but still is everyday as happens which is a unlawfully process of law and is ungranted as wrong

Anonymous

I'm a paramedic. I think that most times they shouldn't even CALL police to handle an EDP (short for Emotionally Disturbed Patient.) Police never listen to a damn word ANYone says, and that includes medics, and they think they can tell any possible witnesses they're "not allowed to watch us take the person into custody."
That's what they told this schizophrenic woman's sister, and I thought it was the biggest load of crap I ever heard. If I were the sister I would have watched them from the second they told me that. I can't be sure if you're allowed to watch them put the person in the car, but I would have made a note of it and then called the station to complain about what they said. And I would have done it the very next day; bc I can't understand why the hell family can be there whenever they feel like it in a case involving ambulance but they're NOT allowed to when it's police? It sounds too damn suspicious and like more of their nonsense rules they appear to invent on the spot. This one officer thinks that civilians videotaping their work is a violation and it annoys the crap out of him that they do it.
I think too many mentally ill people with psychotic features become police officers, or too many people who think medical personnel don't know a damn thing so refuse to listen to us.
I told this officer not to use a taser on someone who's bleeding from the head and he was going to do it anyway until his supervisor told him not to; that's one of the gifts you get as a woman medic. Male officers (and sometimes even females) who think they don't have to listen to a damn word you say. Half the time I feel like saying 'If you don't want any help at all from us why the hell are we here?' Although in the case of the patient who was bleeding from the head, it was obvious why we were there. We weren't allowed to start treatment until they stopped him from being violent.

Anonymous

Bless you, o wise one!!

Anonymous

A similar case happen to someone with Diagnosed with Paranoia.
This time the police failed to communicate in the result of tazers deployed to the Neck and Hip to the victim further tramautizing thee individual who spent some days in jail and was not released immediately after confirming the condition but was bailed out with no rembursement of the 10k fee..

Anonymous

The ACLU muse realize that the ACLU is a contributor to these fatal outcomes. The ACLU is against mandatory court ordered medical treatment for the most severely mentally ill. These severely ill people repeatedly relapse and end up homeless on the streets, incapable of even realizing they are mentally ill, and living a pitiful and perilous life in delusion and squalor. They could be treated and restored to sanity, but the ACLU and similar "patients' rights" organizations stand in the way. Confrontations with police inevitably follow.
Don't donate to the ACLU unless you want more mentally ill people living on the streets instead of getting treatment. For more info, http://www.treatmentadvocacycenter.org/solution/assisted-outpatient-treatment-laws

Anonymous

You are a consumer or medical professional...you do understand that along with all the other biogtries and hypocrisies stigma is still an issue with mental health...fortunately and sometimes unfortunately people are able to be free and crazy...especially folks who live with thought disorders...I've watched the system fail a lady I know... she asked for help she didn't meet the criteria for admission to the local receiving facility...I watched this woman decompensate for 6 months and no one would help...not the cops, the doctor following her, the community mental health center...why because even though she was suffering she was not in imminent risk of self harm or an imminent danger to others...the Baker Act or 5150 was established to prevent warehousing...like it or not it's explicitly clear that even those who should be treated don't have to be and as long as the narrowest interpreted definition of imminent is used this will continue to happen...just because I have a psychiatric dx doesn't mean I've given up any of my civil rights... like or not neither has the person who is psychotic...our civil liberties are eroding and if you wish to continue living freely, you must defend the rights of everyone...question authority, disobey what is wrong... and anyway you look at a leo using deadly force on an obviously incapacitated person is wrong... no one is above the law nor is anybody below it...

Anonymous

You don't have a clue, lumping us all together into:
"These severely ill people repeatedly relapse and end up homeless on the streets, incapable of even realizing they are mentally ill, and living a pitiful and perilous life in delusion and squalor. "

I've had my "mental illness" used against me so many times to justify just about any kind of abuse I've experienced. That stigma is alive and well in "dismissing" whatever you say, do, etc.
COP splits your eye open? Oh, she was banging her head on the ground.
In court, when the prosecutor tells you can't plead "not guilty" cuz "you just go thru this little program and then it will disappear" and you get upset? Uh oh, the Judge condescendingly tells you to calm down, as if it's proof you were out of control, and that's why the cops beat the sh#t out of you, I could go on and on.

Anonymous

Are you suggesting (!!) that police depts. across the nation are hiring indivduals who's routine response to a person in crisis (EDP's) is to issue peremptory commands, such GET ON THE GROUND!! GET ON THE GROUND!!, or: PUT YOUR HANDS WHERE I CAN SEE THEM, NOW!!! etc. And when these discreet, calming measures fail, and the individual in question goes off the rails because they perceive an imminent threat to their life, and they respond by 'resisting arrest', the officers then escalate to violent, lethal force? Which, as often as not results in the indidviduals death or in serious personal injury? I'm shocked. Is the criminal justice system aware of this problem? They are? And they've elected to exonnerate the police in 99% of all cases? Well. That would seem to be a bit of an assault on the civil liberties of ALL amerikans. It would be nice if somebody in a position to act on the citizenry's behalf actually gave a shit and did something about this. But then, that would be the amerika I grew up in. Not the third world shit hole its become in the last 35 years. Let's blame the liberals. Yeah. It's their fault. Why not?

Anonymous

Amen.

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