ADA & Use of Force

A ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court affects how you train to use force with the mentally ill

By Ken Wallentine  |   May 20, 2015

Ask a police chief or sheriff how the Americans with Disability Act might impact use-of-force training and the response could be a puzzled look. Earlier this week the U.S. Supreme Court addressed just this issue, siding with police, 6 – 2, in the case of San Fransisco v. Sheehan. It’s a case worth considering.

The Issues
In 2008, San Francisco police officers responded to a community-based group home where Teresa Sheehan was behaving erratically and threatening staff members. Sheehan was suffering from acute schizophrenia. A social worker asked for police help to transport her to a secure mental health facility.

When the two officers first entered the room, they saw that Sheehan had a knife. The officers backed out of the room. However, concerned that she might have an escape route, they went back into the room before back up arrived.

When they re-entered the room, Sheehan lunged at them with a knife. The officers shot her. She survived and sued the police.

The question presented to the Supreme Court is whether the Americans with Disability Act requires officers to provide “reasonable accommodations” and take special precautions when attempting to detain or arrest and armed and mentally ill person.

The ADA mandates that police (and other government actors) must generally make “reasonable accommodations” to avoid discriminating against persons with disabilities. Mental health advocates argue that police may use unnecessary force if they fail to consider a person’s mental illness. Sheehan’s lawyer asserted that the officers could have used less aggressive tactics, such as de-escalating the situation through nonconfrontational verbal negotiation or waiting for additional officers to arrive.

Lawyers for the officers argued that officers must place safety considerations before disability accommodations. “When mental illness manifests itself in unpredictable, violent behavior as it did in this case, officers must make split-second decisions that protect the public and themselves from harm,” according to the city’s lawyers.

The trial court sided with the officers, ruling that it would be impractical and unreasonable for officers to comply with the ADA when attempting to take a violent and armed mentally ill person into custody. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the trial court should have allowed a jury to decide whether it was reasonable for the officers to wait and use less confrontational tactics.

The justices pummeled lawyers with difficult questions. Justice Alito asked, “What does discrimination mean in the context of police activity?” He noted that was a threshold question that seemed to have been ignored by both parties. Justice Sotomayor asked whether the city was arguing that the ADA should not even apply to police arrests. Justice Scalia suggested that was the only real question before the Court in this case. At the end of the questioning, it appeared that the Court wondered whether it was even possible for officers to negotiate and deescalate a situation where a violent mentally ill person came out them with a knife.

Law-enforcement executives understand that as treatment dollars shrink and less mental health treatment is available, police officers become community mental health workers. Jails see more and more mentally ill arrestees, many of whom have acute or chronic mental health issues that could be much better addressed with proper treatment resources.

Mental health advocates want more training for officers in how to de-escalate potentially violent confrontations and how to recognize and respond to persons with mental illnesses. They argue that an officer who does not understand that a person is in psychiatric crisis may respond with force when some other intervention might be effective. Law enforcement executives share the desire for additional training, but are frustrated by the lack of training dollars and treatment resources.

Experience in many police agencies shows that crisis intervention training for police works. However, the same funding challenges that lead to cutbacks in treatment dollars applies to available dollars for police crisis intervention training. Deep cuts in mental health treatment funding have simply transferred the responsibility of mental illness crisis-intervention to street cops.

What are your thoughts? How has your agency dealt with crisis intervention training? What works in your community to mitigate force when dealing with mentally ill? Should the ADA even apply to officers confronting a violent and armed person in tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving circumstances?