In police shooting cases, are police departments liable under the ADA for the mental health crises they create?

By Jamie Strawbridge

Jamie StrawbridgeRyan LeRoux, a young Black man in the midst of a mental health crisis, parked his car in the drive-thru lane of a McDonald’s on July 16, 2021, reclined his car seat, and would not move. After McDonald’s employees called 911, the dispatcher routed the call to an armed police officer, who arrived on the scene an hour later and, after noticing Mr. LeRoux had a gun lying on the passenger seat, pointed his own gun at Mr. LeRoux and yelled at him to put his hands up. Thirty minutes later, 16 additional police officers had arrived on the scene; they surrounded Mr. LeRoux’s car and also pointed their weapons at him. When Mr. LeRoux sat up and (according to the officers on the scene) reached for the gun, the officers shot him 23 times and killed him.

Police officer encounters with citizens in the midst of a mental health crisis too often end in tragedy. If the victim of these encounters had a mental disability, the victim’s estate may sue the municipality, alleging violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. Those federal statutes require police departments to make reasonable accommodations when necessary to avoid discrimination on the basis of disability. In the context of police shootings, one question that often arises in such lawsuits is which reasonable accommodations officers must provide when they know, or should know, that an individual with whom they will interact (or with whom they are interacting already) has a disability. Increasingly, courts recognize that the obligation to provide an accommodation to account for a mental disability can arise well before police officers even arrive on the scene.

In the lawsuit concerning Mr. LeRoux, for example, the court rejected the idea that the officers did not fail to accommodate Mr. LeRoux’s mental disability because, once he allegedly reached for a gun, the officers perceived an emergency and acted reasonably in that moment. The failure to accommodate, the federal court explained in its March 2023 decision in Estate of LeRoux v. Montgomery County, Md., was not limited to that narrow inquiry; indeed, the ADA failure to accommodate may have arisen hours before the shooting, “when the County failed to contact either of the teams available to serve individuals in the County experiencing mental health crises.” Rather than contacting individuals trained in de-escalating mental health crises, the police officers needlessly escalated the situation, leading to tragedy.

A federal district court in New York reached a similar conclusion late last year in Short v. City of Rochester. That case centered on Tyshon Jones, a young Black man with a mental illness who left a homeless shelter early in the middle of the night on March 10, 2021, carrying a bucket of kitchen knives from the shelter’s kitchen. After a shelter employee called the police and explained the situation, the police found Mr. Jones alone on the street, in the throes of a mental health crisis, cutting himself with one of the knives. The officers promptly surrounded Mr. Jones, shone bright lights in his eyes, pointed their guns at him, and ordered him to drop the knife. Instead, Mr. Jones advanced towards one of the officers, who shot and killed him.

In the subsequent lawsuit, the City of Rochester argued the ADA claim necessarily failed, because the officer’s decision to shoot Mr. Jones was reasonable—after all, Mr. Jones advanced towards that officer while holding a knife. But that argument “misses the point,” the federal court wrote in its December 2022 decision. Under the ADA, it is not enough that police officers act reasonably once exigent circumstances arise; the ADA may require officers to provide a reasonable accommodation in order to ensure such exigent circumstances never arise in the first place. The court noted that relevant considerations include “actions taken, and decisions made” well before any shots are fired, such as whether police officers (trained in aggressive, law-enforcement techniques) should have taken the lead in responding to Mr. Jones at all. If the police department knew Mr. Jones had a mental health disability and should have dispatched individuals trained in de-escalating mental health crises, plaintiffs could prevail on their ADA claim even if the officer who shot Mr. Jones “was ultimately justified in using deadly force.”

The Department of Justice has gone one step further when construing the scope of ADA obligations. In a March 2023 report concerning the Louisville Metropolitan Police Department, the DOJ noted that, when it comes to ADA compliance, it is not only the actions of police officers on the scene that are relevant—so too is a municipality’s “systems for responding to 911 calls.” In particular, the DOJ report concluded the practices of Louisville’s 911 communications center “contribute to a situation where people with behavioral health disabilities receive police responses that are often ineffective, unnecessary, and harmful,” in violation of the ADA. That is partly because Louisville’s 911 call center deploys officers to calls involving behavioral health issues—officers who lack the training needed to effectively engage with citizens in crisis and whose law-enforcement tactics tend to “escalate rather than de-escalate the situation—even though the call center deploys trained medical personnel to deal with physical injuries. This unequal system contributes to unequal treatment for citizens with mental disabilities, including unnecessary uses of force, arrests, and institutionalizations, the DOJ report concludes. To remedy these ADA violations, Louisville should improve its call center policies and procedures so that call-takers dispatch mental health professionals—not police officers—when calls involving citizens with mental disabilities do not require a police presence. If a police presence is required, the report continues, Louisville should ensure officers are trained in de-escalation techniques.

The DOJ and Department of Health & Human Services made similar point in a recently-released guidance document concerning emergency responses to people with mental disabilities. That document noted that the ADA’s guarantee of “equal opportunity” for individuals with disabilities means that emergency dispatchers should “send[] a mobile crisis team or other responder rather than law enforcement in appropriate circumstances when a call involves a person with a behavioral health disability and there is no need for a law enforcement response.” The DOJ-HHS document also underscored that the ADA “applies to public entities’ emergency response and law enforcement systems.”

In light of the ADA’s broad obligations vis-à-vis police departments, bringing an ADA claim may allow plaintiffs to make broader arguments with respect to problematic pre-shooting misconduct that otherwise they could not. For instance, in police-shooting cases, plaintiffs often sue under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging the police used “excessive force” in violation of the Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable seizures. The general test is whether the decision to shoot was objectively reasonable in light of all the circumstances. Although courts differ on how pre-shooting conduct should be weighed in excessive-force cases, some have held that such conduct generally is not relevant. In their view, the reasonableness of an officer’s actions is based on the information possessed by that officer at the moment he or she fires a gun. Especially in these courts, plaintiffs may consider also bringing an ADA claim. Doing so may allow them to challenge the pre-shooting conduct of police officers engaging with individuals with disabilities.

Addressing these ADA violations, and thereby ensuring equal treatment for individuals with mental disabilities, is an urgent matter. Individuals with disabilities are overrepresented in police killings and are involved in many use-of-force incidents. According to a Washington Post database, 20 percent of people shot and killed by police nationwide since 2015 have been in the midst of a mental health crisis, and in Maryland, that figure is even higher, at about 27 percent. Other studies report similar findings. According to the recent guidance document from the DOJ and the Department of Health & Human Services, individuals with a serious mental illness “face 11.6 times the risk of experiencing a police use of force faced by persons without a serious mental illness.” If you or a person you know has been the victim of the use of excessive force by police or other police misconduct, contact us today to discuss your situation.

Authored by

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Jamie Strawbridge Associate