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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March 24, 2015

Dear Chief Justice Roberts,

I'm in the process of reading yesterday's oral arguments on Docket No. 13-1412 (San Francisco vs. Sheehan). Would it be instructive for the Court to hear similar experiences to Ms. Sheehan's?

I have longstanding personal experience with mental illness (currently under control and being treated) and being taken into custody by a local Sheriff's department. Without insurance at the time, suffice it to say my experience was less than optimal. The conditions of my illness had me similarly situated to Ms. Sheehan in my apartment at the time of my arrest.

The entire thing MIGHT have been avoided if they had training to deescalate the situation with me verbally. Past personal experience with officers who DID have the Crisis Intervention Training had me complying peacefully with them in a past situation. (1996-97), and going to inpatient treatment.

In the case of the Sheriff's department (2010), none of that kind of training was in evidence for me, as I wound up at the county jail. Eventually, it was discovered I was mentally ill - but I wasn't taken in the right way or to the right place.

My reaction to the Sheriff's department personnel in 2010 was resistance because they came at me much the same way as they did Ms. Sheehan - bursting in and overwhelming me with physical force. These two very different situations and outcomes took place years apart - and in different cities.

In the case of the Sheriff's department incident (2010) - I wasn't known to the area at the time - I'd only recently moved here to help my diabetic son get around while going to college here.

I realize that hearing from people with lived experience is a two-edged sword, given that at the time of my arrest I was quite ill - but I also have insight into my illness - born of long experience with it, and I know all officers in our country - and indeed - all PEOPLE in our country should understand that, on the whole, we are predated UPON more than we are violent.

Sorry for my wordiness - but to give you a picture of why I think my own experience might be of relevance to you in deciding this case, I felt it was necessary to evoke clarity. I'll certainly write it all up and send it off to you if you think it might help you all make a more informed decision about this very important issue in thousands of people's lives.

Sincerely yours,
Dorothy N. Hawkins, M.Mus.Ed. (retired)
Middleton, WI

PS My positive experience with the city police happened in 1996 - the negative one in 2010. Clearly, more uniform training of officers must ensue.


I also know of a case where a man was wrongfully shot. Here are some articles about it. I used to babysit him. He was a good kid, the youth pastor at his church.


My son is an example of how police act when 911 is called for a suicidal man. To make it short, he was 21, fighting depression, bipolar and alcoholism. He was currently in treatment but relapsed over the weekend and didn't go to therapy. His therapist called to talk to him and he stated he started drinking that morning and felt like dying. He was on medication for his depression/bipolar plus antabuse. She called for a welfare check and when they came out they shot him 10 times because he had a knife and he cut his arm while walking. Of course the police say it's justified because they feared for their lives. They were 8-12' away and one of them had a shotgun. Now I'm without my son, crying all the time and they get to go on living a normal life. I want to get justice for him. They need to be accountable for their actions.


I am so sorry for your loss, and the unnecessary tragedy that caused it.

Dunia Dickey

I wanted to share an article I just wrote about the Sheehan case that may be of interest:

Dunia Dickey
Equitas Foundation

Paige Smith

Although I believe that there are a lot of restraint that can be taken without actually shooting someone, I do believe that we, now more than ever need stronger protection. However, I have noticed that people are sentenced to jail too often on our tax dollars. If anything they should sentenced to a rehabilitation center. Sometimes we get punishment mixed up with school.


I think the only way to resolve the issue is start dealing with cases at the individual level. ACLU has refused my case saying it's only one person they need it to effect a masses. Well unless maybe things start getting police on check at a one person at a time level the police won't care just like ACLU doesn't.


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