The U.S. Supreme Court dealt at least a partial blow to police reform advocates Monday, in a ruling that held police officers could not be sued after all for firing gunshots at a severely mentally disabled woman who threatened violence.
The decision is a loss for plaintiff Teresa Sheehan, who survived the deadly police force, and had won the right to sue in the lower courts. Studies in several cities have found that about half of police shooting victims are mentally ill, and that the mentally ill are disproportionate victims of excessive police force. Sheehan, like many of disabled police shooting victims, was shot in what started as a call to police for help.
But Monday’s Supreme Court ruling also avoided what could have been a much worse outcome for disability advocates. The justices punted on what was perhaps the most significant question before the U.S. Supreme Court — how federal disabilities protections under the Americans with Disabilities Act applies to this sort of police conduct. Had the justices ruled on that question, advocates warned, the conservative Roberts Court could have made disabilities protections substantially weaker than they are now. “While San Francisco may intend to craft arguments that it believes will limit the damage to individuals’ rights under the ADA, it will have little control over what the Supreme Court does,” disability groups wrote in a letter to San Francisco, urging the city to drop its appeal.
Instead, the justices’ ruling made clearer than ever that under current law, police officers could not have been expected to consider Sheehan’s mental illness when they entered her room at a group home twice, and responded to her violent threats by shooting her six times. “The Fourth Amendment standard is reasonableness, and it is reasonable for police to move quickly if delay ‘would gravely endanger their lives or the lives of others.’,” Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the six-justice majority, noting that they could not weigh in on the relevance of Sheehan’s disability.