Nobody knows how many people are killed by police officers every year in the U.S. But one recent report estimated that at least half of those people have something in common: they suffer from mental illnesses like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
So on Monday, when the Supreme Court heard arguments for a case that could drastically change the way police interact with the mentally ill, the stakes were high. The key question: Should police have to back off from a threatening, known mentally unstable person and wait for the situation to cool off—or can they proceed as they would do with a seemingly rational individual?
The case at hand involves the 2008 police shooting of Teresa Sheehan, a schizophrenic woman in San Francisco, but it’s reminiscent of more recent headlines, like the killing of Lavall Hall, a schizophrenic/ bipolar Miami Gardens native last month, or the shooting death of schizophrenic/ bipolar Jason Harrison in Dallas, video of which caused an uproar when it was released last week.
"We see this in the news day after day, week after week, where the police arrive to help somebody and they wind up hurting them," Leonard Feldman, Sheehan's attorney, argued to the Court in a plea to uphold a previous ruling, which found the officers should have backed off.
"It's only when officers and public entities are held accountable for actions like those that occurred here that we can expect to see a change in [this] pattern," he said.
In the Sheehan case, a social worker came to Sheehan's apartment to give her a psychiatric evaluation. Upon walking into her apartment without permission, Sheehan pulled out a knife and threatened to kill him. Frightened, he called the police for help getting her to a facility for an evaluation.
When the police arrived, they were made aware that she was mentally ill. They knocked on Sheehan's door, and then opened it with the social worker's key. She was laying in the bed, but suddenly jumped up with the knives and threatened to kill the officers. They backed off and called for backup, while she yelled that she wanted to be alone and locked herself inside the apartment.
However, the police didn't wait for backup. They barged into the room with guns drawn, spraying her with pepper spray, at which point she came towards them with the knives. They then shot her five or six times, though she did survive the shooting.
She later filed a lawsuit against the city, claiming that she should have had protection from the American Disabilities Act (ADA), which requires accommodation for people with all kinds of disabilities.
It's not clear how all the Justices in the court feel about the case, mostly because today's arguments were filled with bickering about the briefs that the City of San Francisco's attorney Christine Van Aken filed, which weren't aligned with what the Court thought it was going to be deciding. There was also a lot of disagreements about the facts of the case. "I don't know why we took the case," Justice Antonin Scalia remarked at one point.
Van Aken, San Francisco's attorney, argued that Sheehan was posing a risk the the public, and that officers were unable to know if she had additional weapons inside, or whether she was going to try to escape. This, she said, warranted the officers' response.
"So what they thought was necessary was to get that door open so that they could see what Ms. Sheehan was doing, so they could see if she were preparing an ambush or barricade," Van Aken argued.
But that's not what they did, argued Justice Sonia Sotomayor. "They opened the door, and they rushed in and pepper sprayed her. They — they weren't just opening the door to see if she had a gun or other instruments of danger," she said. In terms of protecting the public, she asked, wouldn't it be appropriate to ask officers to "to wait for their backup and to wait for the crisis intervention team?"
No one could know what was going on behind that door, Van Aken argued. The officers were "preventing a danger that they had a reasonable basis to believe existed," she said. By entering the second time, they were only trying to apprehend her and prevent harm to the public or harm to herself.
"There's a lot of uncertainty about these situations, and some reason to give the police officers the benefit of the doubt," chimed in Justice Elena Kagan.
Some of the closing remarks in the argument, made by Justice Sotomayor, laid out how important this case's precedent will be, especially considering the current scrutiny of police on the national scale.
"There's 350 people a year, estimated, who are shot by police officers and killed, who have mental illness," she said, "Isn't the ADA… intended to ensure that police officers try mitigation in these situations before they jump to violence?"
Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.