In cases like these, we need to stop talking about mental illness and start thinking through the implications of psychiatric disabilities. "Psychiatric disability" refers to mental illness that "significantly interferes with the performance of major life activities," a category that clearly applies to people whose "erratic behavior" got them killed by police.Why do police officers shoot a disabled person standing in a street with a knife? Surely, as Professor Perry argues, a taser would be a more effective means to achieve control of such a patient. (Let's agree to call them patients instead of perpetrators.)
The implications of a disability paradigm in the law enforcement scenario are both staggering and encouraging. With a disability comes civil rights protections, as the ubiquitous wheelchair ramps and blue-signed parking spaces will attest. But these laudable accommodations are just the tip of the iceberg. Recognizing mental illness as a psychiatric disability means that injured (or gunned-down) patients would have an easier time recovering damages in civil court, especially in cases where law enforcement agencies refuse to sanction their own officers.
Nothing seems to bring law enforcement into line than million-dollar jury verdicts. Take the recent Chicago case of Aaron Harrison, an unarmed 18-year-old African American killed by police. While the Independent Police Review Authority cleared the cops of wrong-doing, a jury awarded $8.5 million in the family's wrongful death case. Justice was not served by the review board, but by the courts. Only because of the civil court system "did the truth came out and the city was held accountable," said personal injury attorney Larry Disparti.
Can you imagine if the Americans with Disabilities Act protected every patient in a law enforcement encounter?