Law Enforcement Intervention in Mental Health Crises: The Legal Standards for Officer Conduct after the Supreme Court's Decision in Sheehan V. City and County of San Francisco

By Oliver, John E. | Developments in Mental Health Law, July 2015 | Go to article overview

Law Enforcement Intervention in Mental Health Crises: The Legal Standards for Officer Conduct after the Supreme Court's Decision in Sheehan V. City and County of San Francisco


Oliver, John E., Developments in Mental Health Law


Law enforcement is difficult work. Many officers are periodically called into highly volatile situations, full of uncertainty, that may require them to make split-second decisions on whether and how to use lethal force to protect themselves and the public from harm at the hand of dangerous individuals. That reality makes the public and the courts understandably and appropriately reluctant to second-guess the judgment of officers in such situations. If officers could be disciplined or punished for every action they took, they would not act and public safety would suffer.

Law enforcement is also professional work. In no small part because of the damage that officers can effect when applying force, they receive--or are expected to receive --training on how to respond to volatile situations, how to secure a scene, how to deescalate conflicted situations, and how to use force judiciously and in proportion to the danger presented. Law enforcement organizations and training academies operate at all levels, from local to international jurisdictions, to set standards for training and conduct and improve law enforcement response. Since at least 1987, with the introduction of the "Memphis Model" Crisis Intervention Team ([CIT]; developed in response to the shooting death of a mentally ill person by a Memphis police officer), there has been increasing training for officers to help them better understand and respond to individuals who are experiencing mental health crisis. The CIT model has become the gold standard for such interventions, and CIT programs have been developed in jurisdictions throughout the country, including several jurisdictions in Virginia. (1) Local programs are organized under the Virginia Crisis Intervention Team Coalition and are also coordinated through a partnership with the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Disability Services' Office of Forensic Services.

Despite these developments toward increased law enforcement professionalism, in the last two years a number of high profile police shooting deaths, most involving African American victims, have exposed an unfortunate reality--too many of the nation's officers are not adequately trained, and are using force, including lethal force, inappropriately. Significantly, as the Washington Post noted in its 2015 investigation of fatal police shootings, one-fourth of the 462 fatal police shootings documented by the Post in the first half of 2015 were of individuals reported by either family or the police (or both) to be mentally ill. In 45 of the 124 fatal shootings of persons with mental illness, the police were actually responding to a call to help someone get treatment, "or after the person had tried and failed to get treatment on his own." The Post article quotes Richard Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, as saying, "This is a national crisis. We have to get American police to rethink how they handle encounters with the mentally ill. Training has to change."

It was in this context that in March of 2015 the U.S. Supreme Court heard the case of Teresa Sheehan (City & Cnty. of San Francisco, Cal. v. Sheehan, 135 S. Ct. 1765 (2015), a woman with mental illness who was shot and almost killed by San Francisco police officers who had been sent to transport her to a psychiatric hospital. (See the DMHL summary of the case and of argument before the Supreme Court in the April 2015 issue).

The Sheehan Case

In 2008, Ms. Sheehan, who has schizoaffective disorder, was living in San Francisco in a group home for persons with mental illness. She reportedly stopped taking her prescribed medications for a period of 18 months, and her condition and behavior began to deteriorate. At one point she refused to come out of her room, and the counseling supervisor at the home used a key to enter her room. After the supervisor entered, Ms. Sheehan rose from her bed, screaming at the supervisor that he get out of her room, that he did not have a warrant, that she had a knife (not seen at the time by the supervisor, but later described by Ms. …

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