Supreme Court considers impact of disability law on police

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ByVic Lee KGO logo
Tuesday, March 24, 2015
Supreme Court considers impact of disability law on police
A San Francisco woman who was shot by police is taking her claim to the U.S. Supreme Court, saying that officers violated her rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- On the anniversary of an officer-involved shooting in San Francisco, a Bay Area woman is taking her claim to the highest court in the land in a case that could set a legal precedent. Teresa Sheehan was also shot by police and claims the officers violated her rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Attorney John Burris is representing Sheehan, a mentally ill woman, who is suing the city of San Francisco. Initially, a district court found that the city was not liable for the shooting. But Burris appealed that to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which then overturned the initial ruling. That's why the case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, where justices heard oral arguments on Monday.

In 2008, the 56-year-old was shot and wounded when police say she threatened them with a knife. Sheehan, who has schizophrenia, sued the officers and the city for failing to consider her mental condition before the near fatal confrontation.

Sheehan's attorney argued that the Americans with Disabilities Act gives certain protections against excessive force to people with mental illnesses.

"Accommodations should have been made because there was no direct threat," Burris said in a phone interview. "The officers were in a position of safety. If they followed their training, they would not have opened the door and had this confrontation."

There has been a spate of shootings by police involving people with mental health issues.

On Tuesday night, 24-year-old Alice Brown was shot and killed after she fled from police, driving her car erratically and crashing into several cars. The officers said they feared for their safety and for others at Van Ness Avenue and Pine Street.

Alex Nieto was shot and killed a year ago at Bernal Heights Park when officers thought the Taser he was holding was a gun.

Both Brown and Nieto are said to have been dealing with mental issues.

"In recent years, many police departments have intensified their crisis intervention training like one recently held by the San Mateo Sheriff's Department.

"We teach them how to, if they have time, to deescalate the situation," said Deputy Jim Coffman. "We teach them how to talk, how to listen, how to problem solve to a certain extent."

At the San Francisco Police Department, 250 officers have already gone through crisis intervention courses, which also specifically deal with the mentally ill.

But as Chief Greg Suhr says, the bottom line is that if there's an immediate threat to the public, his cops have to stop it.

"Sadly, if a person is outside themselves but they're a significant danger to others, you have to protect the defenseless, right? Or the people that we're here to protect," he said.

In Burris' case, the city counters that Sheehan posed a direct threat to the officers and they were justified in using lethal force.