A movement against police brutality has been steadily building in this country with mounting public outcry rightly naming systemic racism as a major cause. What has not been as frequently discussed is that discrimination against people with disabilities plays another major role in much of the brutality.
According to a recent statement from the American Civil Liberties Union's disability counsel, Susan Mizner, “Many people recognize the names Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice, African-Americans killed by the police. Less well known are the names Milton Hall, James Boyd, Ezell Ford, Kajieme Powell, and Tanisha Anderson. They are people with psychiatric disabilities — most of them people of color — shot and killed by police. In many cases, police were responding to requests for assistance to get the person mental health care.”
San Francisco's city attorney is taking one such case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Imagine the scene: It's 2008. Teresa Sheehan, a woman in her mid-50s with a history of psychiatric disability is in crisis. Off her medication and in the midst of a psychotic episode, Sheehan barricades herself in her room at the group home where she lives, brandishing a knife when her caseworker tries to perform a welfare check. Clearly not well, Sheehan's caseworker alerts the police that she needs help.
Fortunately, the Police Department maintains a team of officers capable of responding to individuals in psychiatric crisis who have been trained in proven de-escalation techniques to get people the care they need in times of great psychiatric distress. Unfortunately, help is not what arrived that August day. Instead of waiting for back-up from properly trained officers, two police officers entered Sheehan's room with guns drawn and proceeded to shoot her five times.
Amazingly, despite being shot in the face, Sheehan lived to tell. Eventually, she sued San Francisco for the violation of her rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act. City Attorney Dennis Herrera has appealed the case, asking the U.S. Supreme Court to hear it and it has agreed to do so.
San Francisco has long been a leader when it comes to protecting the rights of individuals with disabilities. We're famous for, and proud of, our reputation as a community that embraces all of its citizens. We're a city that welcomes diversity and human difference as part of the colorful tapestry we call humanity.
This is why San Franciscans of all stripes should be embarrassed to have this fight happening in their name. The highest court in the land is poised to decide the case based on the following question: “Does the ADA apply during encounters with the police?”
Frankly, even asking this question is a miscarriage of justice. The ADA is a nondiscrimination law that is always in effect. It was designed to provide broad protections for some of the most vulnerable and gravely misunderstood people in society. Herrera's suit could open the floodgates to weakening the only protection people with disabilities have. This is incredibly dangerous, especially considering that people with psychiatric disabilities make up as much as half of the number of people shot by police between 2000 and 2012.
Susan Mizner has said, “Dennis Herrera may not want to hurt the ADA, but he has no control over what the Supreme Court does — and they accepted this case for a reason. Civil-rights organizations from around the country have asked him to drop this appeal, and settle the case, or try it on its merits. He can support SFPD officers without undermining the ADA.”
The disability community cannot afford to allow this to happen. We are organizing a public comment campaign. I ask you to join us by writing to Mayor Ed Lee and Herrera and demanding that they heed the call of civil-rights advocates and San Franciscans alike by dropping the appeal.
Jessie Lorenz is executive director of the Independent Living Resource Center San Francisco.