The U.S. Supreme Court agreed Tuesday to hear San Francisco’s appeal of a ruling allowing a mentally ill, knife-wielding woman to sue police for shooting her, a case that could set standards for police treatment of the disabled.
The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled in February that a jury ought to decide whether two officers should have waited for backup rather than charging into Teresa Sheehan’s room and shooting her when she lunged at them. The 2-1 ruling reinstated Sheehan’s damage suit, which a federal judge had dismissed.
The nation’s high court granted review of the case Tuesday and will schedule a hearing for a ruling due by the end of June.
The central issue is how the Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires government agencies to make reasonable accommodations for the disabled, applies to police conduct toward a mentally ill person who may be violent.
“Police officers deserve clarity concerning their obligations under federal law, and public safety demands it,” City Attorney Dennis Herrera, whose office represents the officers, said Tuesday. “We hope the high court reverses the Ninth Circuit’s mistaken decision and restores reasonableness to this area of the law.”
Ben Nisenbaum, a lawyer for Sheehan, said the law must draw distinctions between a mentally ill person who poses a threat to the public — like “a person running down the street with a knife” — and someone confronted by officers while alone in her room, with backup police on their way.
According to the appeals court, Sheehan, then 56, suffered from schizophrenia and had threatened her social worker with a knife before he summoned police to her room in a Mission District group home in August 2008.
When Sgt. Kimberly Reynolds and Officer Katherine Holder entered the room, Sheehan came at them with a knife and threatened to kill them, the court said. They left and called for backup, but re-entered shortly before help arrived, breaking down the door when Sheehan tried to block it.
They tried to subdue her with pepper spray, and when she still refused to drop the knife, they shot her five or six times, the court said.
Sheehan survived but needed two hip-replacement operations, a lawyer said. Prosecutors charged her with assault, but dropped the charges after a jury deadlocked.
In defending against Sheehan’s civil suit, Reynolds and Holder said they had re-entered her room because they feared she might have access to other weapons or might escape. But the appeals court, in an opinion by Judge Raymond Fisher, said a reasonable jury “could find that Sheehan was in a confined area and not a threat to others,” and that the officers had known that a deadly confrontation was likely when they entered with guns drawn.
In its appeal to the Supreme Court, San Francisco argued that the federal disability law does not require police to consider the mental health needs of “armed and violent suspects who are disabled.” When mental illness causes “unpredictable, violent behavior as it did in this case,” said Deputy City Attorney Peter Keith, “officers must make split-second decisions that protect the public and themselves.”