A Case that Can Set Precedent For Police Treatment Of The Mentally Ill

The Supreme Court for the United States takes case involving the San Francisco Police Department’s shooting of a mentally disabled woman.

We have read the headlines and tweets about members of law enforcement using excessive force, even killing, people who are mentally ill. Yesterday, I volunteered for a research project. I’m retired but now realize even more why I enjoy taking on these projects — not only does it help professionals who help others, but I always learn from them.

While conducting the research, I discovered the following. It’s good news in the sense that organizations across America are now seeking a decision from the highest court in the nation involving police and the mentally ill. It’s San Francisco vs. Sheehan, case number 13-1412.


Teresa Sheehan at Christmas dinner in 2014. (Courtesy of Frances Sheehan)

Theresa Sheehan lived in a group home in the Mission district and suffers from schizophrenia. In 2008, Theresa’s social worker contacted the police to carry out an involuntary psychiatric commitment. He alleged that Theresa threatened him with a knife.

Two cops arrived and entered Sheehan’s room. She threatened them as well. The two cops left and called for backup. However, before backup arrived, the officers broke down Theresa’s door, pepper sprayed her, and fired their guns 5 to 6 times. Theresa was shot but survived, needing two hip replacements as a result of being shot.

Prosecutors charged Theresa with assault. She went to trial and the jury deadlocked. The prosecutor dropped the charge. Theresa filed a damage suit in the federal court under the Americans With Disability Act, (ADA). On summary judgment, the district court ruled in favor for City of San Francisco and closed the case. Theresa proceeded on appeal to the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. The appellate court reversed the district court and ruled that a jury should decide the case.

The City of San Francisco has appealed the circuit court ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court. “Police officers deserve clarity concerning their obligations under federal law, and public safety demands it,” says City Attorney Dennis Herrera, whose office represents the police officers. As he told the Chronicle, “We hope the high court reverses the Ninth Circuit’s mistaken decision and restores reasonableness to this area of the law.”

Now, there are two questions before the Supreme Court. One is whether the ADA “requires law enforcement officers to provide accommodations to an armed, violent, and mentally ill suspect in the course of bringing the suspect into custody.” The second question is the central issue; whether the officers’ forced entry into Theresa’s apartment was “unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment “by reason of the anticipated resistance of an armed and violent suspect within.”

The ACLU and 42 other organizations called on the city of San Francisco to drop its appeal. They did not, so the amicus briefs have poured in, asking the Court to decide how the ADA, which requires government agencies to make reasonable accommodations for disabled individuals, applies to police conduct toward a mentally ill person who may be violent.

The American Civil Liberties Union amicus brief argues that the City of San Francisco is asking the Court to carve out an exception to the ADA for police in which life-saving crisis intervention and related techniques are assumed to not be reasonable if the person with the disability is armed or violent.

Justice Stephen Breyer’s brother, U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer, was the judge who dismissed Sheehan’s suit, and so Stephen Breyer will not hear the case, leaving only eight Supreme Court justices to decide.   You can read the ACLU’s amicus brief by clicking here.

Beginning with page 9, the amicus brief describes cases where the police mistook people with epilepsy, persons with cerebral palsy, and people having strokes, as intoxication or under the influence of illegal drugs. This is important to me as I have a friend with cerebral palsy who was commanded to walk in a straight line by police or be arrested for failure to cooperate. I also had the direct experience of needing medical help when my late husband was having a stroke.

The first question asked of me was how much he had to drink. My late husband and I only had alcoholic beverages on special occasions, about 4 times a year. That day was not one of those special occasions. They asked him to stand. He would try, then fall. They asked if he could speak, and I could see his face twisting by the minute, but they were oblivious to it. When the EMT arrived, I took her to the side and told her that my husband was having a stroke. She immediately took his blood pressure and then called in to the hospital that she was bringing in a patient.

While the what if’s are scary to think about, the experience was still real.

The amicus brief addresses how police officers, knowing a person is deaf or hard of hearing, mis-perceive their actions and threat them as uncooperative, even to making it difficult for the person to communicate using sign language by handcuffing them behind their back. They wrote:

“When a deaf individual reaches for a pen and paper to pass notes with a police officer, or a printed card stating that he or she is deaf, officers sometimes assume that the person is reaching for a weapon and respond with lethal force.”

Errol Chang

Errol Chang, bi-polar and schizophrenic, was in crisis on March 18, 2014. His family called for help. He was killed by police in his home.

The amicus brief argues that there are well-established and effective law enforcement practices that are widely understood and widely used in police encounters to protect officers, the public, and people with disabilities. There is nothing in the ADA that prevents law enforcement from making an arrest. The regulations and guidance of the U.S. Department of Justice require that the practices that take disability into account in other areas, also applies to arrests and detention. The question then is why are there still hundreds of Americans with disabilities seriously injured and even killed in police encounters? The answer is because of the indifference of those officers towards the disabled.

To paraphrase Justice Ginsburg in her concurring opinion in Tennessee v. Lane, people with disabilities are included in “We the People” and responses by law enforcement should not be indifference, but accommodation.

KQED News reviewed officer-involved shootings in San Francisco between 2005 and 2013, and found that 58 percent of the people killed by police had a mental illness that was a contributing factor.

Theresa is represented by Oakland civil rights attorney Ben Nisenbaum. A ruling in San Francisco vs. Sheehan is due in June.

Maybe, just maybe, the shooting of Theresa Sheenan, and the deaths of Jason Harrison, Asa Sullivan, Idriss Stelley, Errol Chang, Ethan Saylor, Dontre Hamilton, and others, will not be in vain.

Posted on 03/20/2015, in Cases, Cops Gone Wild, Theresa Sheehan and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 33 Comments.

  1. These are very disturbing incidents and hard to take.
    Thank you for sharing this important work.

    In Solidarity



  2. There are ways and protocols to assist police in dealing with folks who are disabled, mentally ill, have dementia, they have to care first. It has bee awhile since I have dealt with police as a guardian ad litem. Where I used to live, there used to be a group of police officers sent on calls of this nature because of their ability in this area. One officer had a step son who was diagnosed as being bipolar and would act out inappropriately. This decent police officer was able to calmly handle a difficult situation that his Wife couldn’t.

    In short, I hope the supreme court gets this one right. In every police department, there should be specific better trained police assigned to these cases. This is only one solution.


    • Gronda, San Francisco made some changes starting in 2011 to establish a specific department with trained officers for people with disabilities. It’s a good move, but was too late for so many. It’s good to hear that you know a decent officer who is able to calmly handle difficult situations. I’m sure there are more out there.


  3. so heartbreaking!


  4. yahtzeebutterfly

    “Prosecutors charged Theresa with assault. She went to trial and the jury deadlocked. The prosecutor dropped the charge.”

    Is it common for a prosecutor to drop a charge when a jury deadlocks?


    • Corey didn’t drop or change the 1st degree murder charge when the Dunn jury deadlocked on that count. It depends on the prosecutor and at times if they interview the jury, what the jurors tell them about their inability to agree.


      • yahtzeebutterfly

        Did Theresa threaten with assault or actually assault the officers?

        Also, the officers seemed to break protocol (SOP) when they broke through her door without waiting for back-up….especially knowing that she was mentally disabled.


        • Yahtzee, the reports say that the police forced the door open, Theresa was holding a knife, the cops pepper sprayed her then opened fire shooting her at least 4 times. Reports do not say if she actually assaulted. Yes, the issue of forcing the door open and not waiting for backup is an issue before the Supreme Court.


        • yahtzeebutterfly

          From your link to the ACLU Amicus brief:

          The second judgment also raises factual questions, most importantly why the officers did not employ crisis intervention techniques.The evidence shows that, when the officers first arrived at the premises, Ms. Sheehan was quiet and contained in her room. A jury could conclude that the officers had the time and the opportunity to implement crisis intervention techniques designed for interaction with a person with a psychiatric disability in crisis. Moreover, the officers could have used the City’s own policy for dealing with barricaded suspects in detaining Ms. Sheehan.42

          42 ~ S.F. Police Dep’t, General Order 8.02, Hostage and Barricaded Suspect Incidents (1994); accord Sheehan, 743 F.3d at 1224 n. 8 (“the officers could have avoided harm to themselves by retreating a safe distance from the door”).


  5. Mr. Militant Negro

    Reblogged this on The Militant Negro™.


  6. agent provocateur

    Reblogged this on Nevada State Personnel Watch.


  7. yahtzeebutterfly

    I appreciate that the EMTs finally arrived when your husband was having a stroke. The police were doing all the wrong things which I think harmed your husband in the midst of his stroke.

    I ache for you, Xena, that you had to watched your husband being told to stand and then fall and to speak and then have facial twitches.

    I so want to hug you right now.


    • Yahtzee, it wasn’t simply facial twitches. The left side of his face had dropped and twisted. The hospital administered a TPA, which I call “Pac-man.” It can only be administered within a certain time from the onset of a stroke because it eats the blood clot on the brain. If the blood clot has settled in and/or burst, it will eat the brain. He regained movement on his left side within minutes.


  8. yahtzeebutterfly

    If the officers had waited for back-up, what procedure would they have used to safely get Teresa out of her apartment and to the treatment that she needed?


  9. Given the police are so often called to known psychiatric cases it is a wonder they don’t have mental health specialists they can call on to accompany them. Or specially trained cops perhaps with a suitable medical background.
    Xena – pleasure to reblog. Enjoy Derby O’ Gill.


  10. yahtzeebutterfly

    Xena, I am holding onto the same hope that you expressed in your above article:

    Maybe, just maybe, the shooting of Theresa Sheenan, and the deaths of Jason Harrison, Asa Sullivan, Idriss Stelley, Errol Chang, Ethan Saylor, Dontre Hamilton, and others, will not be in vain.

    The officer (Christopher Manney), who in December was not charged by the Grand Jury for the killing of Dontre Hamilton, is now in the 3rd day of his appeal hearing challenging his being fired by the Milwaukee police chief.

    Here are two article links with excerpts regarding his firing and the in-progress hearing:

    From: http://fox6now.com/2015/03/18/will-he-get-his-job-back-appeal-hearing-for-christopher-manney-who-killed-dontre-hamilton-starts-thursday/

    “There’s a set of training and enforcements that you are taught and you don’t go hands on and start frisking somebody only because they appear to be mentally ill,” Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn said in announcing Manney’s firing from MPD.

    From: http://www.jsonline.com/news/crime/hearing-for-fired-officer-in-hamilton-case-continues-tonight-b99466396z1-297078501.html

    The internal investigation that led to Manney’s dismissal determined he did not follow department rules in the moments leading up to the shooting and conducted an “out-of-policy pat-down,” Police Chief Edward Flynn has said.

    Manney has appealed Flynn’s decision to the city’s Fire and Police Commission, and a hearing on the matter began Thursday. The focus of testimony has been on whether Manney had a reasonable suspicion to pat down Hamilton.

    Lt. James MacGillis, an MPD training officer, said after reviewing the internal affairs documents, state Department of Justice reports and Manney’s statements to investigators, he concluded that Manney’s “frisk was out of policy and outside the training.”

    An officer needs to have a “reasonable suspicion” that a person is armed with a weapon and a reasonable fear for their own safety or the safety of another person before a pat-down, MacGillis said.

    “There wasn’t a clear articulation of a weapon,” MacGillis said of Manney’s statements to investigators.

    “He’s making an assertion that because he’s homeless that he should have a shard of glass or a knife in his pocket,” MacGillis said.

    “… Just because you have contact with a homeless person before and they had a weapon doesn’t necessarily mean that all homeless people carry weapons.”


    • yahtzeebutterfly

      This from above should not have been in quotes:

      The officer (Christopher Manney), who in December was not charged by the Grand Jury for the killing of Dontre Hamilton, is now in the 3rd day of his appeal hearing challenging his being fired by the Milwaukee police chief.

      Here are two article links with excerpts regarding his firing and the in-progress hearing:


  11. “…58 percent of the people killed by police had a mental illness that was a contributing factor.”

    This is so wrong, instead of taking the time to deescalate situations the protocol seems to be to shoot first, ask questions later..

    Mentally ill or not we are all HUMAN BEINGS and don’t deserve to be treated this way by those sworn to protect and serve us.


    • Mindyme,
      Errol Chang’s brother gave an interview where he described patients with schizophrenia. They believe that someone or something wants to hurt them. The louder the noise, the more voices, physical actions, etc., can set them off so that they truly believe that they must protect themselves. They might be looking at people, but think they are animals, insects, or some mythical monster. They need medication — not death.

      The mentally ill need more monitoring to make sure they are taking their medication properly. It frightens me that mental health professionals would call law enforcement when a patient is in crisis, and I think by now that families have learned that to call the police when a family member is having a mental health crisis can end up with seeing their loved one killed.


  12. yahtzeebutterfly

    “No federal charges against ex-Milwaukee cop: Justice Dept.”
    Nov 10, 2015



    MILWAUKEE, Nov 10 (Reuters) – The Justice Department said on Tuesday there is insufficient evidence to pursue federal criminal civil rights charges against a former Milwaukee police officer in the death of an unarmed black man.

    Former Milwaukee police officer Christopher Manney was fired after fatally shooting Dontre Hamilton on April 30, 2014. Federal authorities reviewed evidence collected in the death of Hamilton, the Justice Department said in a statement.

    “The evidence was insufficient to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Manney acted willfully with a bad purpose to violate the law,” the Justice Department said.

    Manney shot Hamilton, an unarmed 31-year-old mentally disabled black man, 14 times during a struggle in Red Arrow Park in downtown Milwaukee. Manney opened fire after Hamilton took the officer’s baton and hit him, according to authorities.

    “Mistake, misperception, negligence or poor judgment are not sufficient to establish a federal criminal civil rights violation,” the Justice Department said.


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