City of San Francisco v. Sheehan: Ending the Law v Policy Debate

On May 18, 2015, the United States Supreme Court (USSC) issued the long-awaited opinion in the case of the City of San Francisco v. Sheehan. The case involves the shooting death of a mentally ill woman who came at LEOs when they were called to a residential facility because she was agitated and being violent with the staff. When they arrived, Ms. Sheehan was armed with a knife. The LEOs spoke with her in her room then retreated when she became more agitated. The LEOs were concerned that as time passed, she could escape, further prepare for LEOs to enter the room, or barricade herself in the room. Although department policy mandated that the LEOs hold their position and wait for a hostage negotiator, the LEOs entered the room. Ms. Sheehan was still inside armed with the knife. The LEOs deployed less than lethal measures, OC spray, which proved ineffective. When Ms. Sheehan came at the LEOs with the knives in her hands, a LEO shot her but it had no immediate effect. The second LEO fired several times stopping the threat. Ms. Sheehan survived.

She sued the City of San Francisco and the LEOs for excessive use of force and unlawful search under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, and for violations of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). Her theory under the ADA was that the LEOs failed to provide a reasonable accommodation for Ms. Sheehan’s mental disability. Her unlawful search claim argued that the second warrantless entry into the apartment was unlawful. She also claimed that the LEOs violated their training and departmental policy.

The USSC found in favor of the LEOs and the City holding that the actions of the LEOs are judged not by department policy, but by whether or not their actions complied with the law. This is a great opinion and a must read for trainers. Stay safe!

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