Supreme Court considers impact of disability law on police

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How Disability Law Can Impact Police Tactics

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Supreme Court is considering whether the Americans With Disabilities Act requires police to take special precautions when trying to arrest armed and violent suspects who are mentally ill.

The justices hear arguments Monday in a dispute over how police in San Francisco dealt with a woman suffering from schizophrenia who had threatened to kill her social worker. Police forced their way into Teresa Sheehan's room at a group home and then shot her five times after she came at them with a knife.

Sheehan survived and later sued the city, claiming police had a duty under the ADA to consider her mental illness and take more steps to avoid a violent confrontation.

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Supreme Court considers impact of disability law on police
Surrounded by pictures of his son, Ron Thomas, right, and his attorney Garo Mardirossian take questions at a news conference in Los Angeles on Monday, Nov. 23, 2015. The city of Fullerton, Calif., has reached a settlement in the death of Kelly Thomas, a mentally ill homeless man who was taken off life support after a violent arrest by police. The father of a schizophrenic homeless man who died after a brutal arrest said Monday that his mission of fighting police violence will continue despite a $4.9 million settlement of his lawsuit against the city of Fullerton. (AP Photo/Robert Jablon)
FILE - In this Dec. 22, 2014 file photo, protestors march in Milwaukee after authorities announced a white Milwaukee police officer who fatally shot a mentally ill black man in April won't face criminal charges. The U.S. Justice Department said Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2015 that itâs prepared to announce a collaborative plan to significantly reform the Milwaukee Police Department. (AP Photo/Carrie Antlfinger, File)
FILE - In this March 11, 2015 file photo, a photo of 27-year-old Anthony Hill, center, with family members stands during a demonstration against his shooting death by a police officer in Decatur, Ga. The police shooting in Georgia earlier this month of a naked, unarmed black man with bipolar disorder spotlights the growing number of violent confrontations between police and the mentally ill _ an issue that goes before the Supreme Court this week. (AP Photo/David Goldman, File)
FILE - In this March 11, 2015. file photo, a police officer stands watch while standing at an intersection during a protest against the shooting death of Anthony Hill by a police officer, in Decatur, Ga. The police shooting in Georgia earlier this month of a naked, unarmed black man with bipolar disorder spotlights the growing number of violent confrontations between police and the mentally ill _ an issue that goes before the Supreme Court this week. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
This February 2000 photo provided by Ventura County Sheriff's Office shows Charley Saturmin Robinet after his arrest for robbery. Robinet was killed Sunday, March 1, 2015, after a confrontation with police. Authorities say he tried to grab a probationary officer's gun and three officers fatally shot him. The three officers who fired their weapons in a videotaped struggle that left a homeless man dead were veterans of the Skid Row beat who had special training to deal with mentally ill and other people in the downtrodden area, police leaders said. (AP Photo/Ventura County Sheriff’s Office)
Rep. Brady Walkinshaw, the prime sponsor of a bill seeking judicial review in mental illness cases, reads from a newspaper article profiling a mentally ill man who was shot by police in 2013, on Thursday, Jan. 29, 2015, in Olympia, Wash. The state House unanimously passed a bill called "Joel's Law" to allow family members to ask a judge to review cases whenever a mental health professional decides against detaining someone who could be a danger to themselves or others. (AP Photo/Rachel La Corte)
This undated photo provided by Albuquerque Police Department shows Keith Sandy. Police said SWAT team member Dominique Perez and former detective Sandy fatally shot James Boyd, a mentally ill homeless man who had frequent violent run-ins with law enforcement. The two Albuquerque police officers were charged with murder Monday, Jan. 12, 2015, in the shooting death of Boyd. (AP Photo/Albuquerque Police Department via The Albuquerque Journal)
This undated photo provided by Albuquerque Police Department shows Dominique Perez. Police said SWAT team member Perez and former detective Keith Sandy fatally shot James Boyd, a mentally ill homeless man who had frequent violent run-ins with law enforcement. The two Albuquerque police officers were charged with murder Monday, Jan. 12, 2015, in the shooting death of Boyd. (AP Photo/Albuquerque Police Department via The Albuquerque Journal)
In this photo taken Thursday, Jan. 8, 2015, Bainbridge Island police chief Matthew Hamner talks about how police interact with mentally ill people on Bainbridge Island, Wash. Since early October, Karen Hellmuth, 73, a member of a noted family in this small Puget Sound community, has been held in solitary confinement at the Kitsap County Jail without treatment for what many say is a decline in her mental health. She was charged with trespassing and assaulting an officer on Oct. 4, following a blow-up with a neighbor and volatile confrontation with the arresting officer. Hellmuth was evaluated and found incompetent to face charges, but a lack of bed space has forced her to remain in jail on a wait list for more than three months. Although a federal judge ruled last month that holding mentally ill people in jails in competency cases without treatment violates their constitutional rights, the state of Washington has yet to implement changes or infuse more money into the system to address the long wait lists. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
Bernalillo County District Attorney Kari Brandenburg announces that her office is pursuing charges against two Albuquerque officers accused of fatally shooting a homeless camper in March 2014, during a news conference, Monday, Jan. 12, 2015 in Albuquerque. Officers said SWAT team members, Dominique Perez and former detective Keith Sandy fatally shot camper James Boyd, 38, who was holding two knives, during a standoff in the foothills of the Sandia Mountains in New Mexico. Video from an officer's helmet camera showed Boyd, who authorities say was mentally ill, appearing to surrender when officers opened fire. (AP Photo/Russell Contreras)
Protestors march in Milwaukee Monday, Dec. 22, 2014 after authorities announced a white Milwaukee police officer who fatally shot a mentally ill black man in April won't face criminal charges. Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm said Christopher Manney won't be charged because he shot Dontre Hamilton in self-defense. (AP Photo/Carrie Antlfinger)
LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 21: Hundreds of protesters gather in Leimert Park to rally against police abuse February 21, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. Protesters gathered to remember Ezell Ford, a 25-year-old mentally ill black man killed by Los Angeles police in a violent struggle over a police officer's weapon, according to authorities. (Photo by Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
FILE - In this July 5, 2012, file photo, Ron Thomas, right, the father of Kelly Thomas, and his attorney Garo Mardirossian, holding a stun gun, at a news conference in Los Angeles. The city of Fullerton, Calif., has reached a settlement in the death of Kelly Thomas, a mentally ill homeless who was taken off life support after a violent arrest by police. Ron Thomas, father of 37-year-old Kelly Thomas, said Monday, Nov. 23, 2015, that the settlement amount was $4.9 million. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes, File)
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Her attorneys say laws protecting the disabled require police to make reasonable accommodations when arresting people who have mental or physical disabilities. They say police could have used less aggressive tactics, such as waiting for backup and trying to talk to her in a nonthreatening way.

City officials argue the ADA does not require accommodations for armed and dangerous people who are mentally ill and pose a threat to others.

The case has attracted attention from mental health advocates who say that failing to take account of a suspect's disability often results in unnecessary shootings by police.

Law enforcement groups have also weighed in, saying a ruling in Sheehan's favor could undermine police tactics, place officers and bystanders at risk and open them to additional liability.

The ADA generally requires public officials to make "reasonable accommodations" to avoid discriminating against people with disabilities. But lower courts have split on how the law should apply to police conduct when public safety is at risk.

In Sheehan's case, her social worker called police for help in restraining her so she could be taken to a hospital for treatment. Officers entered her room with a key, but Sheehan threatened them with a knife, so they closed the door and called for backup. But they said they weren't sure whether Sheehan had a way to escape, and were concerned that she might have other weapons inside.

The officers then forced their way in and tried to subdue her with pepper spray. But she continued to come toward them with the knife and was shot five times.

A federal district court sided with the police, ruling that it would be unreasonable to ask officers trying to detain a violent, mentally disabled person to comply with the ADA before protecting themselves and others. But the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said a jury should decide whether it was reasonable for the officers to use less confrontational tactics.

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