Shooting The Mentally Ill

Ken AshfordCrime, Mental Health, Supreme CourtLeave a Comment

I’ve written about this before — the propensity of the police to open fire on people they know to be mentally ill.  Like their current problem with minorities, members of law enforcement seem to have a problem with showing restraint when it comes to the mentally ill.

Earlier this week, the US Supreme Court had occasion to address this issue, and sadly, the results were not what mental health advocates were hoping for.

Teresa Sheehan suffered from a mental illness and lived in a San Francisco group home. After Sheehan threatened her social worker when he attempted to perform a welfare check, he became concerned that she was a danger to herself or others and summoned the police for help transporting her to a mental health facility for a 72-hour involuntary commitment. When the police officers arrived, they entered Sheehan’s room without a warrant to take her into custody. Sheehan grabbed a knife and threatened to kill the officers. They were forced to withdraw outside her room and call for backup, but instead of waiting for the backup to arrive, they drew their weapons and forced their way back into her room. When Sheehan again threatened the officers with a knife, they shot her several times.

Sheehan sued the officers and the city for violations of her Fourth Amendment right to be free from warrantless searches and seizures as well as violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants, and Sheehan appealed. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that there were triable issues of material fact regarding whether the officers’ second entry into Sheehan’s room was reasonable under the circumstances and whether the officers failed to reasonably accommodate Sheehan’s disability as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The US Supreme Court was asked to determine two things:

(1) Did the officers violate a clearly established right under the Fourth Amendment when they forced entry into Sheehan’s room the second time?

(2) Does the Americans with Disabilities Act require law enforcement officers to provide accommodations to an armed, violent and mentally ill suspect when attempting to take that suspect into custody?

The Supreme Court ruled “no” to the first question and didn’t reach the second one.  The ruling was 6-2, with Scalia and Kagen dissenting on procedural grounds (that is, even though they dissented, they still didn’t agree with the Sheehan’s claim).

My opinion: when you read the facts of the case, you see that the police were in a precarious position.  Obviously, they had to do something, and the longer they waited, the more this woman was a risk to herself and others.  I just have an issue with shooting her.

And the problem isn’t a legal one or a political — the solution lies with proper police training.

As I have written before, police need to adopt what is known as the Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) model of dealing with the mentally ill.  It is a 40-hour curriculum — one of the most comprehensive police officer mental health training program in the country. According to Laura Usher, CIT program manager at NAMI headquarters in Arlington, Virginia, there are crisis intervention training programs in 45 states as well as the District of Columbia. (States without programs are Delaware, West Virginia, Alabama, Arkansas, and Rhode Island.)

While there are multiple CIT programs within some counties, many states are barely on the map in terms of the number of counties within each state that have programs. Most states only have CIT programs in only one or two counties.

Most law enforcement agencies can’t afford to train everyone.  They’d have to pay someone else overtime, and that can be a big expense.  As a result, many police departments prefer to train only a few specialized officers to deal with crisis issues, rather than making mental health training mandatory.

You can read more about it here.  The Supreme Court opinion is below the fold….

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RELATED:  A war veteran with PTSD is killed be Texas police in riot gear.  It was videotaped.  Although the murder — yes, murder — happened almost three years ago, the tape was released

On July 13, 2012, Sgt. James Brown, an active duty Fort Bliss soldier, self-reported to the El Paso County jail to serve a 48-hour sentence for a DUI. Brown, who had served two tours of combat duty in Iraq, wrote on a jail form that he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress. According to a news report, Brown contacted his mother after he checked in to the jail, and explained that the jail now wanted him to stay for a week, and that he had decided that he “just wanted to pay the court fine and get out of here.” His mother sent the money for the fine, but James Brown never returned home. He was 26 years old.

The autopsy report said that Brown died of natural causes related to “sickle cell crisis.” Local news station KFOX14 fought “all the way to the attorney general” to obtain the video showing what happened in the jail in the moments before Brown’s death.

At some point, Brown experiences an episode of bleeding, although it is unclear where on his body he is bleeding. A staff team wearing riot gear storm the cell, restrain and shackle Brown, and perform a forced cell extraction- but Brown is not fighting. He pleads repeatedly, “I can’t breathe.” The staff carries Brown to the ‘infirmary,’ and even though Brown is audibly short of breath and his condition is obviously deteriorating, no ambulance is called. Instead of summoning help, the guards place a spit hood over his head. James Brown’s family attorney B.J. Crow described to KFOX:

B.J. Crow: “When a 26-year-old active military person checks into jail for a court-imposed sentence on a Friday, and he leaves Sunday, you know, in a casket, something went horribly wrong there. … He was bleeding out the ears, the nose, the mouth. His kidneys shut down. His blood pressure dropped to a very dangerous level. And his liver shut down.”

In the end, James Brown dies naked in a cell, not blinking or responding.