Supreme Court Doesn’t Want to Decide How Much the Police Need to Accommodate the Mentally Ill

Teresa Sheehan lived in a group home for people with mental illness. In August of 2008, her social worker called the police to check on her, saying she had threatened to stab him. The police knocked on Sheehan’s door and, after she threatened to kill them too, entered her room with their guns drawn. According to the police, she came at them with a knife and wouldn’t stop even after they pepper sprayed her. They shot her multiple times, severely injuring her.

Sheehan sued the police for her injuries arguing that the Americans With Disabilities Act (“ADA”) requires the police to make reasonable accommodations when interacting with individuals who have a mental illness. She argued that they failed to adequately take her disability into account when they nearly killed her, violating her constitutional rights.

Earlier this month, in the case of San Francisco v. Sheehan, The Supreme Court avoided directly tackling Sheehan’s primary argument, holding that the officers were off the hook from her lawsuit because it was not clearly established back in 2008 that they were required to give special accommodations to people with disabilities. The long-term question of whether the police are subject to the ADA, and must accommodate the mentally ill, is left to future courts to sort out. Meanwhile, Sheehan has no redress for her injuries.

The lack of Government and State funding for mental health services has resulted in a dramatic increase in the amount of people with mental illness that wind up in the criminal system. Given the recent flood of police brutality cases, this is an extremely important issue that must be addressed. A large number of the people that die or are injured by the police suffer from a mental illness. On the other hand, many attacks on the police are often committed by the mentally ill.

Society must use this moment, when these types of tragedies are being publicized daily, to craft an approach that will protect both the police and civilians from unnecessary and heartbreaking violence. The courts, and especially the Supreme Court, with its incredible power to define laws that impact the behavior of millions, should be at the forefront of crafting this approach.

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