Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Sheehan vs San Francisco

On the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, the Supreme Court (SCOTUS) took the case of Sheehan vs San Francisco.

In 2008, Sheehan, who has schizophrenia, threatened her social worker with a knife, then threatened the two police officers who came after. They called for backup. Before backup arrived, the police broke into her apartment, pepper sprayed her, then shot at her 5 or 6 times. Sheehan survived and was charged with assault, but sued the police department and the city under the Americans with Disabilities Act, claiming that the decision to go in without backup was not reasonable given her disability.

A federal judge threw out the case (he's the brother of Justice Breyer, who will recuse himself), but the 9th Circuit said it should go to a jury. Now SCOTUS will rule.

Here's what I wrote for CNN in August about police violence and disability:
In cases like these, we need to stop talking about mental illness and start thinking through the implications of psychiatric disabilities. We also need police whose first instinct is to de-escalate tense situations whenever and however possible, and, when necessary, solve confrontations with the absolute minimum amount of force.
"Psychiatric disability" refers to mental illness that "significantly interferes with the performance of major life activities," a category that clearly applies to people whose "erratic behavior" got them killed by police.

The distinction matters. In America, being disabled comes with certain civil rights protections. While we generally try to eradicate illness, we are required to accommodate disability. So how does a police officer accommodate someone behaving erratically and holding a knife?
So now SCOTUS is going to rule, more or less, on that question. I am not optimistic, but I am not a SCOTUS expert or a legal scholar or a lawyer. I have no real idea how this question will fit into the general legal opinions of the various justices.

But I am glad the argument is getting its day in court. I'll hope that at least someone writes a pro-accomodation opinion that I can use, even if it's a dissent. We need to shift the rhetoric.

I'm going to try and go to DC to hear the arguments in the spring and will report back.

UPDATE: Think Progress has a good summary of the case here.