Police still showing lack of ability to deal with disabled 

We are in the midst of a community discussion, as a nation, about what is and isn't acceptable from police. Last month, I wrote an article for The San Francisco Examiner on the Teresa Sheehan police brutality case. Sheehan was shot in the face by police during a mental health crisis in 2008. Her caseworker had called for help when Sheehan brandished a knife and locked herself in her room at her group home. 

According to Public Defender and trial counsel Kleigh Hathaway, "The police officers who shot Ms. Sheehan did not know how to handle someone with a mental illness. Even though the officers knew that backup was only a few moments away, with less-than-lethal force [beanbag firearms], they manufactured the exigency and forced their way into Ms. Sheehan's apartment, guns drawn and proceeded to shoot her seven times. Ms. Sheehan needed to be helped by the police, but instead received a violent assault and a subsequent criminal prosecution. Fortunately, the jury refused to convict and the case was eventually dismissed." 

The fact that the city attorney's appeal is slated to be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court highlights the shocking amount of deference currently afforded to the police. Incidents like this involving police brutality of people with disabilities more often than not get defended with trumped-up and exaggerated claims about perceived threats to the safety of officers and/or others. 

Despite the Police Department's claims to the contrary, Sheehan couldn't have been a viable threat to others since she was barricaded alone in her 8-by-10-foot room with a knife routinely used for cooking. Neither was she reasonably capable of fleeing her third-story room because there isn't a fire escape, making the window an inaccessible escape route for most people, never mind an overweight woman in her mid-50s with bad knees. Lastly and most problematically, the officers would've had no reason to fear for their safety if they had followed proper procedure by waiting outside her door for officers who had been trained to work with people in psychiatric distress.

Nevertheless, the Police Department is clinging to a bogus safety defense in the case of Sheehan, pushing for its appeal by the Supreme Court. According to Public Defender Jennifer Johnson of the Behavioral Health Court, "In 2011, the SFPD reached out to members of the community to develop a Crisis Intervention Team Training program to give officers the tools they need to respond appropriately to a person with mental illness in crisis. So far, the Police Department has trained more than 300 officers to understand mental health symptoms and to de-escalate volatile situations. ...It would be a shame for this city to ask the Supreme Court to sanction the utterly tragic and inappropriate response by the SFPD in the Sheehan case."

Unfortunately, the Police Department has a long way to go before the police force has been sufficiently trained and the community can truly feel safe calling for help. Officers often continue to show a frightening lack of regard for the lives of people with disabilities. As recently as Jan. 18, a police officer in the Bayview allegedly intentionally pushed Bo Frierson, a powerchair user, off a curb! The incident was captured on video and, had Frierson not been wearing his seatbelt, he would've ended up face down in the street as he dangled off the curb. This behavior demonstrates how deeply the need for disability awareness training and accountability for police abuse remains in this city. 

This problem is not simply going to go away on its own. It begs the question: What kind of policing do we want? I, for one, want to be able to trust that if someone is in crisis, I can call for help without exposing them to further danger. This means that we cannot afford to continue offering police impunity.

Jessie Lorenz is executive director of the Independent Living Resource Center San Francisco.

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