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Disabling the Police

eye on the news

Disabling the Police

A San Francisco disability discrimination case threatens to hobble law enforcement nationwide. May 8, 2015
California

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), passed by Congress in 1990, was the product of good intentions. Its proponents—President George H.W. Bush chief among them—wanted to eliminate arbitrary barriers to the physically disabled. “Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down,” Bush solemnly declared at the legislation’s signing ceremony. The ADA sailed through Congress with little resistance. Unfortunately, as is so often the case with federal do-goodery, those good intentions produced a poorly drafted statute full of vague definitions, ambiguous obligations, and complicated enforcement schemes, made even worse by byzantine enabling regulations and far-fetched judicial interpretations.

Twenty-five years later, the true consequences of the ADA are still unfolding. Hijacked by trial lawyers, government bureaucrats, and activist judges, the noble goals of the ADA have brought instead a host of other absurdities: costly and ubiquitous (and largely unused) curb cuts and ramps in public areas; Braille buttons on drive-through ATMs; alcoholic pilots and truck drivers, deaf lifeguards, and one-legged firefighters; drug-addicted employees who can’t be fired, lest employers “discriminate” against a “protected class”; and serial litigants—some of whom have filed thousands of lawsuits—who make a cottage industry out of fly-specking small businesses’ compliance with arcane and prolix structural requirements for bathrooms and parking lots. Much to the likely chagrin of the ADA’s proponents, the definition of “disabled” is not limited to people in wheelchairs—it includes those suffering from morbid obesity, drug addiction, phobias, allergies, narcolepsy, sleep apnea, and dyslexia. Of the estimated 43 million “disabled” Americans protected by the ADA, fewer than 2 percent are in wheelchairs, the vast majority of whom reside in nursing homes.

Employers must “reasonably accommodate” this thicket of disabilities by restructuring job duties, granting leaves, providing technological support, hiring assistants, granting reassignments, making “individualized determinations,” and entering into “interactive dialogues,” all while ignoring “discriminatory customer preferences” and, of course, “traditional stereotypes” (no matter how well-founded). The ADA essentially requires employers to function as social workers and ignore the economic burden unless it constitutes an “undue hardship.” In short, the ADA has short-circuited common sense.

Alas, critics have railed against the asininity—and astronomical compliance costs—of the ADA, to no avail. Despite their most dire predictions about the law’s nonsensical potential those critics had no inkling of the ridiculous extremes that were yet to come, thanks to an inventive ruling of the San Francisco-based U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Last year, in Sheehan v. San Francisco, the Ninth Circuit held that the ADA applies to law-enforcement officers, and requires them to “accommodate” armed, violent suspects if they are “mentally ill” (and therefore “disabled”). The case arose from an incident in 2008 involving two female police officers who were responding to a call for assistance by a social worker at a group home for the mentally ill. The social worker had been threatened with a knife by one of the residents under his care, a middle-aged woman with schizophrenia named Teresa Sheehan (whose condition had deteriorated because she refused to take her medication). The social worker wanted to have Sheehan involuntarily committed for 72 hours for evaluation and treatment, and requested that the police transport her to the mental health facility for that purpose. When the officers arrived, Sheehan became violent, grabbed a knife, and threatened to kill the officers. The officers drew their weapons and unsuccessfully attempted to subdue Sheehan with pepper spray. In the course of trying to arrest Sheehan (who was still brandishing the knife), the officers shot her several times. Sheehan survived, and sued the officers (and the City of San Francisco) in federal court for various claims, including violation of the ADA. Sheehan did not dispute that she was armed and violent. She alleged, however, that “the officers should have respected her comfort zone, engaged in non-threatening communications and used the passage of time to defuse the situation.” The federal district judge, Charles Breyer (younger brother of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer), dismissed the case before trial on summary judgment. Sheehan appealed.

The Ninth Circuit ruled, as a matter of first impression, that the ADA applies to all arrests, even those involving violent confrontations, and that a jury should decide whether the officers “reasonably accommodated” the violent, knife-wielding suspect “by employing generally accepted police practices for peaceably resolving a confrontation with a person with mental illness.” The city appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which heard the case on March 23. The city contends that the ADA should not apply to police conduct when public safety is at risk. According to the FBI, about 400 people are killed each year by police—as justifiable homicides in the exercise of deadly force. Sadly, at least half the people killed by the police have mental health problems of some sort, according to a 2013 report from the Treatment Advocacy Center and the National Sheriffs’ Association.

Do we want juries second-guessing hundreds of police encounters each year to determine if armed, violent suspects were mentally ill and if the police “reasonably accommodated” the suspects? Police officers are not psychiatrists. They cannot be expected to diagnose whether a violent suspect is mentally ill or merely mean and aggressive. People who threaten to kill the police are by definition unreasonable and even irrational. Some social scientists believe that all criminals are emotionally disturbed; should this entitle them to special treatment by law enforcement? Hamstringing the police endangers public safety. Split-second decisions made in violent confrontations with armed suspects are not suitable for Monday morning quarterbacking. If the Supreme Court does not reverse the Ninth Circuit’s ludicrous decision in Sheehan v. San Francisco, the errant intentions of the ADA will have succeeded in disabling the police.

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