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The Supreme Court Leaves the Americans with Disabilities Act Intact

Police Tape: Police Line Do Not Cross
Police Tape: Police Line Do Not Cross
Susan Mizner,
Director Emeritus,
ACLU Disability Rights Program
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May 20, 2015

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?


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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