There Is No Police Exception to the Americans With Disabilities Act

Many people recognize the names Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice, African-American men, and a child, killed by the police.

Less well known are the names Milton Hall, James Boyd, Ezell Ford, Kajieme Powell, and Tanisha Anderson.

They are people with psychiatric disabilities – most of them people of color – shot and killed by police. In many cases, police were responding to requests for assistance to get the person mental health care.

Teresa Sheehan's name might also be included in the list. In 2008, she was shot five times by police after her caseworker sought assistance in getting her to the hospital for treatment. She, unlike the others, survived. And she sued.

Ms. Sheehan argued in court that the police officers who responded should not have entered her room twice – the second time by force, shouting with guns drawn. Instead they should have waited for backup and taken time and patience in interacting with her, as they were taught in their crisis intervention training. By not doing so, the police officers violated department policy on a barricaded suspect, and they also violated the "reasonable modifications" or "reasonable accommodations" protections under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Ms. Sheehan's case is now before the Supreme Court of the United States. One of the questions to be argued is whether, under the ADA, police have an obligation to provide accommodations to someone with a mental disability.

You might think the answer would be clear.

The ADA applies to every interaction between government and people with disabilities. So unsurprisingly, the federal appeals court in San Francisco thought the answer was clear. It concluded that, of course, the ADA applies to police officers. It applies to police who are responding to a call for assistance in taking someone to a psychiatric evaluation. It even applies when police are arresting a suspect.

But the city of San Francisco is asking the Supreme Court to read an exception into the ADA that Congress didn't write into it: that the ADA does not apply to police encounters.

People with disabilities face violent and deadly consequences when law enforcement does not take disabilities into account. It is not okay to take a deaf person down for failing to follow verbal orders. It is not okay to attack someone with autism because he is slow to respond to instruction. It is not okay to treat a woman with a mental disability as if she were a dangerous criminal. San Francisco's plea that those things should be legal is a dangerous assault on disability rights – and on our expectations of police behavior.

In addition, the Supreme Court appeal is not worthy of San Francisco – a city known for its progressive policies.

City Attorney Dennis Herrera could still choose to withdraw his office's appeal at the Supreme Court and instruct his deputies handling the case to sit down and negotiate a settlement with Ms. Sheehan. He could tell the deputy city attorneys to simply follow the federal appeals court's order to return to court and allow a trial. Any and all of these options would provide Ms. Sheehan some resolution.

And it would not, unnecessarily, endanger the ADA and all future encounters that people with disabilities have with police.

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The sentiment of this article is correct with one exception. "People of color" being mistreated by the state is slightly disingenuous. When people of color are mistreated by the state, it's almost always because they are people with less money. Saying "the poor" of "the underclass" would have cut closer to the truth, wouldn't it? "Black" and "brown" people in Beverly Hills surely get treated better. When we sacrifice the truth - even a little bit of it - to make a sensational read, we must ask ourselves if this is right, or if we want to do this, or if we should be doing this.

The words "black" and "brown" weren't anywhere in this article, but they were on the link that showed up on facebook. This seems to be the pattern. The article itself will be more mellow, and the more sensational headline will be the link you click on. Perhaps this provides a level of propaganda-esque indemnity for the ACLU.

To tell you the truth, I'd much rather have the ACLU focus on just doing its mission and protecting people who have little power, than having it create narratives that stoke race wars where race, while a real issue, isn't really the issue at hand.


I'm a veteran with a disability and receive good VA care thank God, but reading about this is sad, very sad. Police should follow policy and not take maters into their own hands, unless they are in harms way. In the case you stated, they were not! We should bring attention to this situation for accountability and equality for those with behavoral disabilities.

Amy Hernandez

I would also add Ethan Saylor to that list. He would have turned 28 today. RIP, Ethan!


You might add Eathan Saylor's name to that list too. A young man with Down Syndrome who was killed in Maryland over a movie ticket


I would add Kenneth Chaimberlain to that list. Disabled Marine shot while the cops called him a "nigger" for a mistaken set off of his Medical Alert system.

Kristen Richter...

Its about time this issue was properly addressed. I'm terrified that one day, this sort of unjust treatment would happen to me. Police, medical staff as well as people in general are incredibly non-empathetic when it comes to dealing with those suffering from mental health issues. It's bizarre to me that professionals in these fields take irrational behaviors of the mentally ill personally, to the point where it affects situations they should be trained to handle. One would think that a professional in a civil service field would have the required social skills to identify illness and the training to disolve conflict in a way that is mutually beneficial. It's a pathological mindset to go to work and believe everyone who doesn't fit into a specific set of traits and behaviors are the enemy.


How are the police suppose to know who has certain disabilities, like autism???


A suggestion would be to ask them if they have any medical conditions. Communication and training is key. Do you think these officers can live with themselves knowing the outcome of their actions could have potentially been avoided?

My rights have ...

You politely ask the person,( who's rights you are about to violate!),if they have any physical or mental disabilities and HOW CAN YOU HELP THEM !!


Brevard County Florida - I heard Sheriff deputies shoot and kill a man about a half a block from our house two years ago. A very close friend was his neighbor. He had PTSD and had a "ping" as soldiers call it. The cops knew about the PTSD, they had been there before - and usually talked him down. However, this time they climbed out of the car and shot him dead.


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