When 'Reasonable Accommodation' Isn't

According to FBI statistics, 76 police officers were killed and 49,851 were the victims of line-of-duty assaults in 2013.  In addition to the danger that comes with the job, the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) adds another layer of challenges for law enforcement agencies.  Under the ADA, police departments and officers are legally liable if they violate the law’s mandate to provide reasonable accommodation to disabled persons who are detained or taken into custody.  This term the Supreme Court took up the matter of City and County of San Francisco v Sheehan, which raised the question whether Title II of the ADA requires law enforcement officers to provide reasonable accommodation to armed and violent mentally ill individuals.  The court sidestepped ruling on the issue and in doing so, missed an opportunity to help law enforcement agencies and personnel avoid the legal minefield created by the ADA.

Signed into law by President George H.W. Bush in 1990, the ADA’s objective is “to provide a clear and comprehensive national mandate for the elimination of discrimination against individuals with disabilities.”  The law broadly defines “disability” as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of [an] individual” to ensure that all disabilities are protected under the law.  The ADA prohibits public agencies and private business from discriminating “against persons with disabilities in employment, transportation, public accommodation, communications and governmental activities” and requires them to provide disabled individuals with “reasonable accommodation,” another key provision of the law that is also broadly defined by design.  Curb cuts, designated parking spaces and building access ramps ushered in a new era of mobility for the disabled -- over time the definition of “disability” has expanded to include mental illness and has resulted in new challenges to the law’s reasonable accommodation mandate.  The dilemma currently facing law enforcement is when, and under what circumstances, a mentally ill person’s rights are violated under the ADA. 

The facts in Sheehan are not disputed.  Teresa Sheehan suffers from a schizoaffective disorder and lives in a group home.  After Sheehan threatened a program supervisor during a welfare check, the supervisor called police for assistance in detaining Sheehan and taking her to the hospital for evaluation and treatment.  After arriving on the scene, police officers attempted to communicate with Sheehan through a closed door to her room to reassure her they were there to help.  When Sheehan didn’t respond, the officers opened the door using a key provided by the supervisor.  Sheehan became agitated, grabbed a knife, said she didn’t need their help and threatened to kill them if they didn’t leave.  The officers retreated and Sheehan slammed the door behind them.  The officers called for backup but became concerned that Sheehan might try to escape or that she posed a threat to herself or to others.  The officers again tried to communicate with Sheehan through the closed door, and when Sheehan failed to respond, they re-entered Sheehan’s room.  Sheehan attacked them with a knife.  After attempts to subdue Sheehan with pepper spray proved ineffective, the officers shot her multiple times.  Sheehan survived and sued the police department and the officers involved, alleging they violated her Fourth Amendment rights as well as Title II of ADA because the department failed to “train, supervise or discipline” the officers in recognizing symptoms of disability that resulted in Sheehan's being denied the “benefits” of City programs or activities.

Law enforcement agencies are increasingly collaborating with mental health professionals to design specialized law-enforcement response programs that will provide enhanced levels of support and treatment for mentally disabled people.  While these efforts are laudable, they should not be confused with the ADA’s mandate for reasonable accommodation.  In situations where mentally ill individuals present a heightened risk of danger to themselves or to others, police are obligated to assess whether they are entitled to reasonable accommodation, even when the suspect is armed and violent. 

The number of mental disorders recognized under the ADA further complicates the issue.  Today many mental health professionals rely on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (“DSM”) to diagnose patients.  The DSM identifies mental illness by prototype -- if a patient’s symptoms closely approximate the characteristics of a specific prototype (the latest edition of the DSM lists approximately 300 prototypes), the patient is diagnosed with that disorder.  Critics of the DSM argue that reliance on subjective self-reported or observed symptoms without the benefit of objective scientific criteria, such as blood tests, creates the potential for people being incorrectly diagnosed with a mental disorder.  According to the National Institute of Mental Health, an estimated 43.7 million adults, or 18.6% of the U.S. adult population, suffered from mental illness in 2012.

The role of law enforcement has changed dramatically since 1990, due in large part to advances in medicine and technology and the increased demands of a complex and diverse society.  According to the National Emergency Number Association, an estimated 240 million calls are placed to “911” for emergency medical and police services each year.  Without further guidance from the courts that address the legal limits of reasonable accommodation to reflect the increase in recognized disabilities under the ADA, law enforcement agencies and personnel will remain vulnerable to lawsuits that challenge when, and under what circumstances they are legally obligated to provide reasonable accommodation.  A ruling in Sheehan could have provided that guidance.

The officers in Sheehan responded to a call for help to transport a mentally ill woman to the hospital for evaluation and treatment.  Whether police respond to a call for help or a call for assistance, there is always a threat of imminent danger to some degree.  While courts previously have ruled that armed and violent mentally ill individuals who pose an immediate threat are not entitled to reasonable accommodation, the question of what constitutes an “immediate threat” remains contested.  The issue will certainly come before the Supreme Court in the future, and for good reason.  The danger to police is real -- according to the FBI’s preliminary statistics, three of the officers who were killed in 2014 died while engaging with mentally ill individuals.

Constance Jacobs is a freelance writer living in Oakland, California.