Wednesday, January 7, 2015

A Deeper Introspection of Police Behavior: Treatment of People with Disabilities

By Professor Michael Waterstone

This op-ed originally appeared in the Los Angeles Daily Journal.

A police encounter with an individual goes horribly wrong and leads to great bodily harm or even death of that individual. Some argue that even though there were tragic consequences, the police action was regrettably justified. Others view this awful occurrence as providing direct evidence that the police acted inexcusably and perhaps even criminally, at some level not respecting the fundamental humanity of the individual. It reflects still-existing power imbalances and institutionalized racism in our society.

This narrative fits Michael Brown and Ferguson. Or Eric Garner. And indeed both of these cases stimulated a national and painful conversation about police and their encounters with citizens. Those who confront these issues on an all-too-often basis express their frustration, leading to protests and even violence. People who may not think often about racial justice are drawn in and forced to think about uncomfortable issues. Either way, hard questions about police training and their role in society are teed up. Everyone has an opinion.

But this first paragraph applies equally to another fact pattern that occurs all to regularly, yet one that most people do not think about or realize. It reflects the case of Teresa Sheehan, currently before the Supreme Court (City and County of San Francisco v. Teresa Sheehan). The following facts are drawn from the briefs in the case.

A social worker made a non-emergency call to the San Francisco Police Department requesting transportation for Teresa Sheehan, a woman with mental illness, to the hospital for psychiatric evaluation and treatment. Sheehan had no criminal record, and lived in a group home. The social worker was concerned because he knew Sheehan had not been taking her medications and he had received reports of odd behavior. He used a key to open the door and enter her room. She was lying on her bed. Although at first she was nonresponsive, she eventually told him to leave, saying she had a knife.

The social worker cleared the group home, and called the police to help transport her to the hospital. In the form he was forced to submit under California Welfare and Institutions Code Section 5150 for Sheehan’s involuntary commitment, he indicated that she was a danger to others, but not herself.

Two officers arrived, and when they entered the room, Sheehan rose up from her bed, grabbed a bread knife and walked toward the officers. She told them she did not want their help and threatened to kill them if they came near her. She yelled at them to go away and leave her alone.

The officers exited, but then returned (with other officers). Rather than wait for the less-than-lethal force unit that was en route or trying to deescalate the situation, they broke down her door. Sheehan approached the officers with the bread knife. They sprayed her with pepper spray in the face, and then shot her at point blank range five times. After she fell to the floor, they shot her again in the face. Sheehan survived.

Sheehan sued the officers and city, and the U.S. Supreme Court recently agreed to hear her case. Besides other claims, Sheehan argued that the officers violated their duty under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act to reasonably accommodate her known disability by not waiting for the less-than-lethal force unit that was en route or trying to deescalate the situation. The issue is whether Title II applies to law enforcement activities, including arrests. If so, the question is then whether under these facts, the officers were justified in their actions.

This case has difficult facts. Many disability rights advocates would have preferred that the Supreme Court not take it. A broad ruling that the ADA does not apply at all to police arrests, even under exigent circumstances, would be harmful to the interactions of people with disabilities and police. Even if the ADA applies, a factfinder could find that despite the reasonable accommodation provision, the police acted properly given the circumstances.

In either event, this case should serve the same function as the tragedies of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, and force a deeper introspection of police behavior and disability. People with disabilities, like other minorities, are subjects of prejudice, stigma and misunderstanding, and this manifests in their interactions with police.

Earlier last year, Gilberto Powell, a 22-year-old with Down’s syndrome, was struck and knocked to the ground by police, who were suspicious of a bulge in his pants. It turned out to be a colostomy bag. One study found that in Maine, 42 percent of the people shot by police (and 58 percent of those who died from their injuries) had mental health issues. One recent press report involved a police officer who submitted his resignation after being disgusted by his peers mocking disabled children during a meeting that was audio recorded in August, and the lack of attention given to the issue after he filed a report.

Everyone knows someone with a disability, and it is the one minority group any of us could join at any time. But too often, as a civil rights movement that has largely avoided the culture wars, important equality issues for people with disabilities do not get public attention. Like Michael Brown and Eric Garner, we have an obligation to notice these issues, debate them in the court of public opinion, and enact policy measures to improve the situation.

Michael Waterstone is a law professor at Loyola Law School, Los Angeles. He is visiting this year at Northwestern University Law School in Chicago.

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