Police Shooting Case Involving Mental Health Crisis Goes to Supreme Court

Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court in 2010.

Steve Petteway / Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States via Oyez.org

Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court in 2010.


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.

One thought on “Police Shooting Case Involving Mental Health Crisis Goes to Supreme Court

  1. THE COLORADO SUPREME COURT . . . “POLITICIANS IN BLACK ROBES.” (AS IT TURNS OUT.)

    “Truth is the daughter of time, not of authority,” Bacon.

    For decades I refused to believe it, but it is now incontrovertibly established. The Colorado Supreme Court is indisputably a political actor. Our Colorado Supreme Court exists to serve Colorado political parties. At present, the Colorado Supreme Court is more rightly considered an adjunct of the Colorado Legislative Branch, than a check on the Colorado Legislative Branch. Rather than “truth-seeking,” the Colorado Supreme Court now sees its role as “political-outcome seeking.” Litigants successfully use the Colorado Supreme Court to achieve political purposes. In the Ralph Carr Justice Center, rather than meeting impartial guardians of the law, litigants meet their political allies on the bench. The Colorado Supreme Court has accepted its role as a political and partisan tool, and recognizes no constitutional limits on the authority of the Colorado Legislative and Executive branches. We have no “Rule of Law” in Colorado, we simply have shifting political power. That is all.

    “I think there are many who think of judges as politicians in robes. In many states, that’s what they are.” “They seem to think judges should be a reflex of the popular will.”

    Sandra Day O’Connor

    At present, popular will in the United States insists on the demonization of public employees. In particular, an angry mob demands that government discard the constitutional and contractual rights of retired public employees. Colorado Supreme Court justices, as politicians reacting to the popular will, are happy to oblige.

    In this article, I provide an example of the political and partisan role of the Colorado Supreme Court. I describe a case in which the Colorado Supreme Court summarily erases billions of dollars of debt owed by Colorado state and local governments. That is, one branch of Colorado state government relieves another branch of Colorado government of its legal debts. The case involves Colorado statutory contracts that create financial obligations on the part of Colorado governments. Over decades, political considerations induced the Colorado Legislature to mismanage the financial obligations. In recent years, the terms of these statutory contracts were deemed politically inconvenient and politically unpopular. The Colorado Legislative Branch asked the Colorado Supreme Court to discard the contracts.

    In 2010, the Colorado Legislative Branch requested that the Colorado Supreme Court grant this political favor by ignoring the Contract Clause of the US Constitution, ignoring the history of legislative mismanagement of these state financial obligations, and relieving Colorado governments of their accrued legal debts. No trial, no discovery, billions of dollars seized by the state.

    In granting this political favor, sanctioning the breach of Colorado PERA pension contracts, the Colorado Supreme Court was forced to ignore its own long-standing case law precedent, the court failed to conduct a “contract analysis,” the court ignored evidence of Colorado PERA’s attorneys stating that the pension benefit was indeed a Colorado PERA contractual obligation, the court ignored the bill (SB10-001) sponsor’s testimony that the pension benefit was in fact a Colorado PERA contractual obligation, the court ignored recorded legislative history of the contractual nature of the public pension benefit, the court failed to engage in the “heightened scrutiny” of the abandonment of state financial obligations required under federal case law (US Trust) and finally, the court embraced a discredited Denver District Court decision that did not bother to mention Colorado’s on-point public pension case law. In the United States, political connections can be used to summarily erase billions of dollars of government debt.

    Colorado politicians’ premeditated scheme to claw back accrued Colorado PERA pension benefits, from its inception in 2009, was to take Colorado PERA retiree’ assets outside of bankruptcy. (State governments cannot declare bankruptcy under federal law.) The only means by which the Colorado Supreme Court (in concert with the Colorado Legislative Branch) could achieve this goal was by ignoring on-point Colorado public pension case law, and all evidence in the Colorado PERA retiree lawsuit, Justus v. State. In its October 2014 decision in the case, the Colorado Supreme Court ignored the testimony of Colorado PERA’s own lawyers (in 2009) stating, on the record, that the Colorado PERA COLA benefit was a contractual obligation of Colorado-PERA affiliated employers. The Colorado Supreme Court embraced the original Denver District Court decision in this case, which failed to mention Colorado’s public pension case law, (Bills and McPhail.) Is it possible that Denver District Court Judge Hyatt and his staff (in 2011) just happened to be such bad legal researchers that they were unaware of Colorado’s on-point public pension case law that was being read by Colorado’s relatively unsophisticated PERA retirees? Not likely. This case law was indeed recognized by the forthright members of the Colorado Court of Appeals (in 2012) who found the case law to be “dispositive” in establishing the contractual right of PERA retirees to their accrued PERA COLA (ABI) benefits.

    In this article, I address the Colorado Supreme Court’s lack of independence, integrity, and impartiality. I provide a brief history of the efforts of the Colorado Legislature and the Colorado Supreme Court to escape Colorado governmental financial obligations. I comment on the recent (October, 2014) Colorado Supreme Court Decision itself, which summarily erased these billions of dollars of Colorado public sector debt. I highlight some of the numerous factual and logical errors that exist in the Colorado Supreme Court’s Decision in the case. I express incredulity at the Colorado Supreme Court’s willful ignorance of public pension administration, knowledge that was necessary to any court claiming to “seek truth” in the case.

    The Colorado Judiciary had an obligation to ensure that all evidence in the case, Justus v. State, was examined prior to breaking Colorado PERA pension contracts. They ruled in ignorance. This ignorance may have been willful. Rather than honoring their debts, Colorado PERA-affiliated governments will now inflate away that debt courtesy of the Colorado Supreme Court.

    My intent in writing this article is to enhance the public record of, and further document, what I consider to be one of the greatest “crimes” in Colorado history.

    Verba volant, scripta manent.

    On October 20, 2014, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that Colorado PERA pensioners have no contractual right to their accrued public pension COLA benefits. Yet, here we have documentation of Colorado PERA’s own lawyers acknowledging, in legislative testimony, Colorado PERA’s contractual obligation to pay the PERA COLA as recently as 2009.
    http://saveperacola.com/

    December 16, 2009

    Colorado PERA officials in written testimony to the Joint Budget Committee: “The General Assembly cannot decrease the COLA (absent actuarial necessity) because it is part of the contractual obligations that accrue under a pension plan protected under the Colorado Constitution Article II, Section 11 and the United States Constitution Article 1, Section 10 for vested contractual rights.”

    http://www.kentlambert.com/Files/PERA_JBC_Hearing_Responses-12-16-2009_Final.pdf

    Discover the true nature of Colorado state government at saveperacola.com.

    Read the complete article at http://coloradopols.com/diary/64487/the-colorado-supreme-court-politicians-in-black-robes-as-it-turns-out

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