Is The Supreme Court About To Give Cops The Right To Execute The Mentally Ill?

In 2008, Teresa Sheehan was a patient at a home for the mentally disabled. A social worker at the facility where Sheehan was housed used a key to enter her room without permission, triggering an episode in which she grabbed a knife and ordered him to leave. Sheehan was off her medication, and scheduled for a mental health evaluation. The social worker called police to report that the 56-year-old woman had gotten hold of a knife. He testified that he wanted the police to come, in order to help him get the woman to her scheduled mental health appointment.

When police arrived, they used the same key to let themselves into the woman’s room. Sheehan, who is diagnosed with schizophrenia, ordered them to leave, brandishing the knife at officers and telling them she didn’t want their help. The two officers, who were members of the San Francisco police force, called for back-up. Without waiting for assistance, however, officers Kimberly Reynolds and Katherine Holder forced their way back into woman’s room. According to their statements, she came at them with the knife. The two officers opened fire on the mentally ill woman, shooting her in the face, shoulders, chest and groin.

Remarkably, Sheehan survived the shooting, but suffered permanent injuries because of it.

Following a nationwide trend toward criminalizing mental illness, Sheehan was arrested and charged with two counts of assault with a deadly weapon, two counts of assaulting a police officer, and one count of making a criminal threat to the social worker.

A jury found her not guilty on the threat charges. They could not reach a verdict on the assault charges.

It’s impossible to say who failed this woman the most, the staff at the home where she was being treated for mental illness or the officers who were called out “to help.”

Either way, Sheehan’s family filed a lawsuit on her behalf, against both the city of San Francisco and the police. The suit states that police have a responsibility to take special measures when dealing with the mentally ill, under the Americans With Disabilities Act. After seven years of conflicting lower court verdicts, the Sheehan’s suit has now made its way to the Supreme Court.

During oral arguments, which were heard on Monday, March 23, several Supreme Court justices appeared to disagree with statements made by disability rights advocates, regarding the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). Several of the justices implied that the ADA doesn’t apply to police who feel ‘threatened’ or who believe that the person might be a danger to the public.

Even those justices who are normally considered “liberal” appear to be siding with police, over people with mental illness.

According to San Francisco’s SFGate, Justice Elena Kagan said that there is “some reason to give the police officers who have to deal with them (the mentally ill) the benefit of the doubt.”

The Obama administration also sided with police, “arguing that police are justified in using force unless they know the individual poses no threat to the public,” according to SFGate.

Not surprisingly, Justice Anthony Kennedy said that the Americans With Disabilities Act is not meant to provide guidance to police who are dealing with an armed person, suffering from mental illness.

On the other hand, at least one of the justices, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, appears to believe that the ADA should serve as a protection for people with mental illness.

SFGate reports that Justice Sotomayor said the ADA is:

“intended to ensure that police officers try mitigation in these situations before they jump to violence.”

Sotomayor brought up the obvious fact that the alternative could be “a society in which the mentally ill are automatically killed.”

In her comments, Sotomayor cited a report which showed that roughly 350 mentally impaired individuals are fatally shot by police each year in the United States.

In December 2012, the Portland Press Herald published a detailed review of officer-involved shootings in the United States. The findings of that research show that, each year, more than half of all people killed by police are mentally ill.

There are hundreds, possibly thousands of citizens killed by law enforcement in the US each year. When compared to other developed nations, even the most conservative estimates of officer-involved shootings in the United States, between 400 and 600 yearly, are horrific. In Great Britain, for example, there were no instances in which police were ‘forced to kill’ a citizen in 2013. In Germany, there were eight instances of officer-involved shootings over a two year period, from 2012-2013. In Canada, there are about a dozen officer-involved shootings, yearly.

Yet here in the United States, the Supreme Court seems inclined to give police even greater leeway when it comes to ‘justifiable’ homicide, even in cases like Sheehan’s, where the person is known to be mentally ill and is already in the care of a mental health treatment facility.

The US is moving further and further away from a system designed to protect citizens from the state. While the Constitution bars the use of ‘cruel and unusual punishment,’ and guarantees all citizens a right to a trial by a jury of their peers, these rights are usurped every time a police officer summarily executes an American citizen.

Over and over again we’re told that police had “no choice” but to use lethal force against an American citizen. Officer-involved shootings are so common in the United States that rarely a day goes by where we don’t hear about another one, whether in local, state or national media. The “no-choice” narrative suggests that officers attempted something other than lethal force, prior to killing the latest suspect. But we know this isn’t true. We know that officer-involved shootings often occur within a matter of seconds, and that even though they are armed with tasers and pepper-spray, police often use deadly force as a first resort, instead of a last.

And that’s ultimately what this case is about; whether police are required to use the least amount of force necessary to subdue a mentally ill person.

In 2015, we are aware that mental illness is often a treatable medical condition. Yet, in the case of Sheehan, no psychiatrists or medical professionals were called to assist. Instead, the police were brought in, with devastating consequences. They responded by forcing entry into Sheehan’s room, an act which certain served to escalate the situation. Then they fired “five or six” bullets into her body. After she recovered, they arrested her for being mentally ill, although she was in a place where she should have been getting treatment for her illness, when the incident occurred.

Now it seems that the Supreme Court of the United States is poised to determine that the actions of San Francisco police were “justified,” sending us on a direct course toward “a society in which the mentally ill are automatically killed,” as Justice Sotomayor warned.

Featured image credit; Flickr, Goeffrey Fairchild, under creative commons license 2.0. This image was resized.