U.S. Supreme Court case could change law enforcement training

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A case before the U.S. Supreme Court may change the way law enforcement agencies handle calls involving mentally ill individuals.

The case focuses on an August 2008 incident in San Francisco in which Teresa Sheehan, a 56-year-old woman with a mental illness, was shot by police. A social worker at a group home called police when Sheehan threatened people with a knife. When she attacked responding police officers with the knife, they shot her five times. Sheehan survived the shooting.

The case is challenging the San Francisco Police Department’s use of deadly force as a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, claiming officers had a duty under ADA to consider Sheehan’s mental illness and take steps to avoid the violent confrontation.

“A disability is something that is protected and should be given accommodations, and if agencies don’t do that then I think they should be held accountable,” said Sue Petkovsek, president of NAMI Dane County.

Petkovsek believes law enforcement agencies have an obligation to train officers to better handle situations involving mentally ill individuals. Crisis Intervention Training gives officers the ability to recognize symptoms of mental illness and the skills to de-escalate crisis situations.

“CIT training is critical in having police know what to do in those situations, and in communities where they have CIT, they have shown by the number of arrests and the number of people going to jail that it works,” Petkovsek said.

CIT has been embraced by the Madison Police Department. All Madison police officers receive CIT at training academy.

Now MPD is sharing that knowledge with other agencies. This past September MPD partnered with NAMI Dane County to teach a four-day CIT program at the Madison Police Training facility. Fifteen officers from various agencies in Dane and Columbia counties participated in the CIT program. Because of the success of that CIT program, another session is being planned for the first week of June. The program will be open to 40 law enforcement officers from Dane and surrounding counties.

A grant obtained by MPD will help pay for the training of those officers.

The need for CIT training is evident in a 2013 report from the Treatment Advocacy Center and the National Sheriff’s Association that found at least half of all officer-involved fatal shootings involve individuals with a mental illness.

According to an Associated Press report, some law enforcement agencies are concerned a Supreme Court ruling in favor of the ADA argument would undermine police tactics, place officers and bystanders at risk and force departments to spend thousands of dollars in training.

An affirmative ruling on the ADA argument by the U.S. Supreme Court would likely force law enforcement agencies across the country to institute some form of CIT.