Do police officers have an obligation under the Americans with Disabilities Act to accommodate people with mental illnesses when making arrests?
The U.S. Supreme Court decided Tuesday to take up this question. The decision is likely to impact how police departments, including those in Colorado, respond to a growing crush of emergency calls involving people in mental health crises, and the steps police have to take before using deadly force.
The case was brought by Teresa Sheehan, a mentally ill woman who lived in a group home in San Francisco when a social worker called 911 out of concern that she posed a danger to herself and others. When two police officers arrived, Sheehan threatened to kill them if they entered her room. They did, she raised a knife, and police shot her at least five times.
Sheehan, who survived, is arguing in part that police violated her rights under the ADA’s mandate that people with disabilities be accommodated in public services.
Sheehan’s case has echoes in Denver, where more than half of the 11 people shot by law enforcement last year showed signs of mental illness, according to a report earlier this year by the Office of the Independent Monitor, a city watchdog.
The Denver police shootings included Samuel Clementi, who was wielding scissors when he was shot in his home at a Veterans Affairs residential facility in April 2013. An employee of the facility had called out of concern that Clementi, whom she said had schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress disorder, was suicidal.
Less than a month later, Christopher Dubois was shot dead after his ex-girlfriend called 911 reporting concern for his welfare. Officers said they believed he was armed and were afraid he would take hostages. His gun was later found to be unloaded and incapable of firing.
And in August 2013, John David Tuck was shot dead by police after waving a knife at pedestrians on Welton Street and East 29th Avenue. As in the cases of Clementi and Dubois—and Sheehan—911 callers had made note of his apparent mental illness.
A recent policy review by Denver police initiated in response to concerns voiced by the city watchdog found that the increase in incidents had more to do with failings in the mental health treatment system than law enforcement response, according to a September report by Police Chief Robert White.
Nonetheless, Commander Matthew Murray told Rocky Mountain PBS I-News late last month that the department revamped its crisis intervention training in 2014, and that all officers are required to attend the training intended to offer tools for deescalating crises involving people with mental illnesses.
Whether that’s enough – for Denver and other police departments – may hinge on the Supreme Court’s decision in the Sheehan case, expected next year.