When police kill people experiencing mental health crises: The nexus of police misconduct and disability rights law.

Chelsea CrawfordBy Chelsea Crawford

In 2019, a Baltimore County police officer needlessly shot and killed Eric Sopp, an unarmed man whom the officer had pulled over on Interstate 83 just two minutes earlier. The officer was responding to a call from Mr. Sopp’s mother, who pleaded with the police dispatcher to help her son, who was in the throes of depression—suicidal and driving drunk. Rather than come to the aid of a man in mental distress, the police officer shot Mr. Sopp eight times, killing him on the highway shoulder. Mr. Sopp should be alive today.

Mr. Sopp’s tragic death is one in a spate of fatal shootings by police officers of individuals with mental health disabilities. Since 2015, 29 individuals with mental illnesses have been shot and killed by police in Maryland alone, according to a Washington Post database. In Washington, D.C., police have killed three individuals with mental illnesses. Often, the victims’ estates and surviving family members sue the officers involved and the police department under 42 U.S.C § 1983, a federal statute allowing individuals to sue state actors and municipalities for violations of their civil rights. In Mr. Sopp’s case and others, the plaintiffs alleged that the officers’ excessive force violated the victim’s Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable seizures. But unlike traditional excessive force cases, Mr. Sopp’s lawsuit also alleged that the municipality that employed the officer violated two federal disability rights statutes: Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (“Section 504”).

The ADA and Section 504 both prohibit discrimination against an individual on the basis of the individual’s disability. See generally 42 U.S.C. § 12132; 29 U.S.C. § 794(a). Discrimination in police-involved shootings encompasses the police department’s failure to make reasonable modifications in its policies, practices, or procedures when such modifications are necessary to avoid discrimination on the basis of disability. For example, a police department whose officer fails to call a crisis intervention team for assistance or escalates an encounter instead of waiting for a crisis intervention team to respond to a person clearly suffering from mental illness is liable for failing to accommodate that person’s mental health disability.

There are at least three benefits to widening the legal aperture of a police misconduct case to consider claims of disability discrimination. First, individuals with disabilities are entitled to protection under the ADA and Section 504, and several mental health disorders, like depression, can be “disabilities” within the meaning of the ADA. If you or a person you know was involved in an encounter with law enforcement in which you believe an officer engaged in misconduct, the ADA and Section 504 may provide you with additional avenues to vindicate your rights.

Second, raising a disability rights claim under federal law claim precludes the defendant municipality from succeeding on a defense of sovereign immunity, in which the municipality claims that, under the Eleventh Amendment to the United States Constitution, it is a state agency that cannot be sued in federal court. Section 504, for example, explicitly abrogates that immunity for all recipients of federal financial assistance, see 42 U.S.C. § 2000d-7, and most municipalities and police departments receive at least some financial assistance from the federal government.

Finally, raising ADA and Section 504 claims against a police department on the theory that the department has a crisis intervention policy but fails to train its officers to follow it, allows a plaintiff to allege specific violations of crisis intervention policies in other fatal police involved shootings involving the department’s officers—allegations that might otherwise be absent from a traditional § 1983 lawsuit. Many police departments across the country have implemented some form of crisis intervention training or response requiring officers or specialized units to follow concrete steps for handling encounters with individuals experiencing mental health distress. But in Mr. Sopp’s case, and in many others, officers and departments fail to adhere to these policies and hastily escalate encounters, leading to tragic and avoidable results.

Brown, Goldstein & Levy has deep experience litigating police misconduct cases and disability rights cases. Examples of BGL’s expertise at the intersection of police misconduct law and disability rights law, include the cases of Eric Sopp (for whose family we recovered $6.5 million), Ethan Saylor (for whose family we recovered $1.9 million, along with a new law requiring better training), Ryan LeRoux (involving a Montgomery County man shot and killed by police officers while experiencing a mental health episode at a McDonald’s drive thru lane), and the Gary Montgomery case (involving a District of Columbia man from whom police coerced a murder confession while he suffered a schizophrenic crisis). If you or a person you know has been the victim of the use of excessive force by police or other police misconduct, we may be able to help.  Contact us to discuss your situation.

Authored by

Chelsea Crawford Partner