Supreme Court Leaves Open Key Issue on Police Approaches to People with Mental Illness

May 18, 2015

The U.S. Supreme Court today decided in City and County Of San Francisco v. Sheehan that police acted reasonably in a confrontation with Teresa Sheehan, a woman living with mental illness who wielded a knife,  shooting her three times. It dismissed a claim that the officers violated her civil rights under the fourth amendment.

As a society, we rely too often on police to be the first responders to psychiatric crises, rather than mental health professionals. Better training of police is needed nationwide for when they do have to respond. but the best solutions lie in averting crises before they ever occur by strengthening the mental health care system overall.

What is significant for people living with mental illness is that the court chose not to address the issue of whether or not the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) applies to such police actions, requiring, for example, special training to de-escalate confrontations through Crisis Intervention Teams (CIT). The city and county had raised the issue in petitioning the court, but chose not to address it in their arguments.

Today’s decision leaves open the ADA question, which in fact may not need to be addressed if future tragedies can be averted.

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