Do police officers have an obligation under the Americans with Disabilities Act to accommodate people with mental illnesses when making arrests?
The Supreme Court decided earlier this month to take up this question. Their decision may 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 was living 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 lived, is arguing in part that police violated her rights under the ADA’s mandate that people with disabilities be accommodated in public services.
Mark Silverstein, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union’s Colorado chapter, said a Supreme Court decision in Sheehan’s favor could affirm that police need to take into account the mental disabilities of the people they’re dealing with, especially when it comes to the use of force.
“A case like this highlights the situation that police around the country have found themselves in,” said Silverstein, “where their actions could lead to an escalation where they wind up having to use deadly force, or where another course of action could lead to a de-escalation that could resolve the situation without the need to resort to deadly force.”
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 targets of 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 and 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 that the department revamped its CIT, or crisis intervention training program, in 2014, and that all officers are required to attend the training intended to offer tools for deescalating crises involving people with mental illnesses.
Murray said a Supreme Court decision wouldn’t change the department’s approach to these cases.
“We’re already ahead of the curve,” said Murray.
In Clementi’s case, the officer, Kevin Dreyfuss, had received CIT training. In his decision not to press charges in the case, Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey wrote that Dreyfuss “showed great personal courage and acted with great restraint” in part by using a less-lethal launcher to try to subdue Clementi before resorting to his handgun.
Clementi survived gunshot wounds to his lower rib cage, right hand and left arm.
“What would the reasonable accommodation be?” said Murray. “The guy is threatening suicide. We don’t just close the door and say, ‘I hope he’s OK.’ Once we’re called and engaged, we have some obligations. We have an obligation to him to try to save his life.”
Scott Glaser heads the Colorado chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Members of his organization have participated in the Denver police CIT trainings, sharing their lived experience with mental illness to help officers understand and empathize.
Glaser said police departments’ actions toward people with mental illnesses shouldn’t hinge on the Supreme Court’s decision. All law enforcement agencies should provide officers with crisis intervention training, said Glaser.
“The better equipped we can make our officers, the better equipped they are to handle situations in ways that don’t end in jail or death,” Glaser said.
The Supreme Court is expected to decide the case next year.