Disability advocates urge San Francisco to drop Supreme Court appeal

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Police Response to People with Mental Illness

More than 40 disability rights and other civil rights groups signed on to a letter sent to San Francisco city officials on January 8, urging the city to withdraw its appeal in a case with significant implications for the role of the Americans with Disabilities Act in police encounters.

The Supreme Court announced it would hear the case, Sheehan v. San Francisco, in late November. Oral arguments are scheduled for March.

On August 7, 2008, San Francisco police officers shot Teresa Sheehan, a woman with schizophrenia, five times after she allegedly threatened to kill them with a knife. Sheehan, who survived, argues that the police violated her rights under the ADA during the encounter by failing to reasonably accommodate her in their determination of whether to use deadly force.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled in February 2014 that the ADA applies to police encounters, allowing Sheehan’s case to proceed to a jury.

The city of San Francisco appealed the decision, on the basis that the ADA did not apply to the encounter.

For the disability rights activists, who described San Francisco as “in many ways as a model of disability-friendly policies and politics,” the case could represent a major step backward for police relations with people with disabilities.

“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 states. “It also suggests that people with psychiatric disabilities have lesser rights under the ADA, purportedly because their needs cannot be known, despite the fact that police are trained nationwide in proven strategies for safely engaging people with psychiatric disabilities.”

Moreover, disability rights activists are concerned that the Roberts Court, which long has had a conservative reputation on civil rights matters, could make a more sweeping ruling than the city anticipates, further weakening the ADA’s protections.

The situation harkens back to 2012, when disability rights activists campaigned for months for then-Washington State Governor Christine Gregoire to withdraw an appeal from a case where the 9th Circuit found that the state was failing to provide adequate Medicaid-funded home and community based services. Gregoire dropped the case before it went to oral arguments.

“While San Francisco may intend to craft arguments that it believes will limit the damage to individuals’ rights under the ADA, it will have little control over what the Supreme Court does,” the letter states. “Please do not lead the charge to weaken the ADA.”

Among the groups that signed on to the letter are the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Disability Rights Network, the National Alliance on Mental Illness and TASH.

Disability Rights Washington, the publisher of this Galaxy website, is part of the federally funded protection and advocacy system and a member of the National Disability Rights Network.