Disability Advocates: Appeal Over S.F. Police Shooting Puts ADA at Risk

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By Rachael Bale and Alex Emslie
KQED

The ACLU and 42 other organizations are calling on the city of San Francisco to drop its appeal pending before the U.S. Supreme Court regarding a 2008 officer-involved shooting of a woman with a diagnosed mental illness.

The groups wrote an open letter (read below) to Mayor Ed Lee and City Attorney Dennis Herrera on Jan. 8. Each member of the Board of Supervisors received a copy, as did San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr and Police Commission President Suzy Loftus.

San Francisco resident Teresa Sheehan, who is diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, is suing San Francisco and the police department after the shooting left her severely injured. Her lawsuit alleges the SFPD violated the Americans with Disabilities Act when officers used confrontational tactics despite knowing she was having a psychiatric crisis.

The Incident

On a summer day in 2008, SFPD officers Kimberly Reynolds and Katherine Holder responded to a social worker’s call about Sheehan’s behavior. Sheehan was living in a Mission District co-op for people with mental illness at the time. When the social worker went to check on her, she threatened him with a knife. When the officers arrived, she threatened to stab them, too, then shut the door to her apartment.

The officers re-entered her room by force. She raised a knife, according to the police report. The officers shot her multiple times.

Sheehan was charged with assault. A jury cleared her, and she sued the city for violations of civil and disability rights.

Trial Pending

A district court initially ruled that Sheehan could not sue for violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Her attorneys appealed that decision, and last February, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the district court’s ruling, saying the suit could move forward.

Among the issues remanded to the trial court by the 9th Circuit, disability advocacy groups are most in support of the ADA’s application to interactions with law enforcement. From the 9th Circuit opinion:

Turning to an issue of first impression, we join the majority of circuits that have addressed the issue and hold that Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act applies to arrests. But we emphasize, as have those other circuits, that the exigencies surrounding police officers’ decisions in the field must be taken into account when assessing the reasonableness of the officers’ actions. We hold that, on the facts presented here, there is a triable issue whether the officers failed to reasonably accommodate Sheehan’s disability when they forced their way back into her room without taking her mental illness into account or employing generally accepted police practices for peaceably resolving a confrontation with a person with mental illness.

The holding that the ADA applies to arrests is law in the 9th Circuit, but Sheehan’s civil trial is on hold while the city’s appeal is before the Supreme Court. Oral arguments in the case are expected to be scheduled for late March or early April.

There are two questions before the Supreme Court: whether the ADA “requires law enforcement officers to provide accommodations to an armed, violent, and mentally ill suspect in the course of bringing the suspect into custody,” and whether the officers’ second entry into Sheehan’s apartment was unreasonable under the Forth Amendment “by reason of the anticipated resistance of an armed and violent suspect within.”

Deputy City Attorney Peter Keith is representing San Francisco in the case. He said the city agrees that the ADA should apply to arrests, but there is disagreement about what that means.

Teresa Sheehan (Courtesy of Francis Sheehan)

Teresa Sheehan at Christmas dinner in 2014. (Courtesy of Frances Sheehan)

“The officers on the scene made a reasonable judgment that Ms. Sheehan posed a significant risk to the safety of others,” he said, “and that’s really what this case is about, the judgment that was made that day.”

Keith said officers were concerned that Sheehan, who is overweight and physically disabled, might climb out a fire escape and pose a risk to public safety. Judges were skeptical of that point during oral arguments before the 9th Circuit.

Oakland civil rights attorney Ben Nisenbaum has represented Sheehan through her multiple trials. He now finds himself preparing arguments for the U.S. Supreme Court.

“There’s nothing about her that indicated she wanted anything other than to be left alone in her room,” Nisenbaum said. “This was not some young, spry criminal who was trying to flee, but unfortunately that seems to be the approach that was taken.”

In a deposition, Officer Kimberly Reynolds said, “I don’t believe specifically that I can say I thought at that moment when I authorized and instructed Officer Holder to open the door about her psychiatric disability.”

To Nisenbaum, the statement is huge.

“How does she accommodate the disability? What thought did she give to it? What did she think is going to happen? Is [Sheehan] going to suddenly be a rational human being? Is she going to stop being sick?”

SFPD Changes

The San Francisco Police Department declined KQED’s request for an interview with Suhr.

The police chief took office in 2011, three years after the Sheehan shooting. He said at a recent town hall meeting that department policies regarding responses to people in psychiatric crisis have been updated to involve officers with specialized Crisis Intervention Training.

“If the officers get there and realize that they have a person in crisis, which we train to, there is a directive that came out pretty much immediately after I became chief that they are to stand down and call for CIT officers and/or a hostage negotiator trained officer, which is one level above CIT,” Suhr said.

SFPD now has 324 CIT-trained officers, according to a presentation Wednesday night at the city’s police commission. That’s 22 percent of the patrol force. Several more weeklong CIT trainings are being scheduled for 2015.

Recently, Lt. Mario Molina became the fourth person to head the department’s CIT efforts in as many years. This CIT position is in addition to his duties as a swing-watch lieutenant at the Bayview station. He said the department is still working to coordinate with dispatchers on how to specify that a call should be responded to by officers specially trained to de-escalate psychiatric crises.

San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi signed the letter asking San Francisco to drop its appeal. He said the city has made huge strides in training officers in behavioral health, the use of nonlethal force and de-escalation.

“Our concern is if the Supreme Court rules that police officers don’t have to do this as a matter of law or are immune from a civil action, the result will be that police departments have very little incentive to train their officers properly,” he said.

A Call to San Francisco

The letter to Mayor Ed Lee and Herrera says the appeal puts the ADA — and San Francisco’s reputation as a leader in disability rights — at risk.

“The City Attorney’s petition to the Court asks for an interpretation of the ADA that would leave people with psychiatric disabilities without the ability to require law enforcement to be reasonably responsive to their needs,” the letter reads.

It is signed by civil rights, mental illness and disabilities advocates, as well as medical associations, law firms and legal advocates. The letter cites statistics from a September KQED series that found more than half of the people shot and killed by San Francisco police officers between 2005 and 2013 had a psychiatric disability that contributed to the incident.

The Mental Health Association of San Francisco is one of the signatories.

“[For] San Francisco to bring a case that looks like it’s specifically targeting and undermining the rights and dignity of people who already face so many types of discrimination is hugely problematic,” said Eduardo Vega, executive director of the Mental Health Association of San Francisco.

Neither the mayor nor any of the supervisors responded to KQED’s requests for comment.

Read the letter to Mayor Ed Lee and City Attorney Dennis Hererra below:

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