What if Teresa Sheehan had been Black or Latina?


Teresa Sheehan

In August 2008, Teresa Sheehan was shot, in her own apartment, by two San Francisco police officers. Teresa Sheehan, then 56 years old, lived in a group home. In the midst of a schizophrenic episode, she threatened her social worker. He called the police. The police entered. Teresa Sheehan objected to their entering without a warrant, picked up a bread knife, and threatened the officers. They stepped out. Then they forced the door open, blinded Teresa Sheehan with pepper spray, and shot her five times.

Sheehan and her family sued the police department, claiming that Sheehan’s Fourth Amendment right to protection from unreasonable search and seizure had been violated. Initially, the case was to consider whether the Americans with Disabilities Act and its protections for those living with disabilities had been violated. The officers failed to “accommodate” Teresa Sheehan’s mental disability. Blinded by pepper spray and then shot repeatedly goes a bit beyond “failure to accommodate”.

The United States Supreme Court issued a non-decision decision on the case yesterday. They exonerated the officers and left the ADA and the Fourth Amendment issues for another day.

What if Teresa Sheehan had been Black or Latina?

The San Francisco Police Department is, right now, “under fire”, a telling phrase, for racist and homophobic text messages. These texts were not “just racist and homophobic.” They were operatic in their extravagance, energy and violence. The San Francisco Chief of Police has called for the officers’ dismissal. Some 3000 cases are now under review and may be thrown out. And the response of the individual officers, their form of apology, is to “explain” that this was just “banter amongst friends.” Sgt. Yulanda Williams, one of the targets of the texts, put it succinctly, “This is just the tip of the iceberg.” Tip of the iceberg indeed. What if Teresa Sheehan had been Black?

In North Carolina this week, a County District Attorney explained the “logic” of his targeted refusal to help Latina survivors of domestic violence. Evelin lives in North Carolina. She came to the United States from Honduras. When she was pregnant, her then-boyfriend, who is from Mexico, attacked her, punching her in the stomach. She pressed charges. Pressing charges should have made her eligible for a U-visa, but not in Gaston County. The U-visa program, now in its fifteenth year, is supposed to encourage undocumented immigrants to report crimes to the police without fear of deportation. A U-visa means four years in the country and a possibility of permanent residence.

But not in Gaston County, North Carolina, where the District Attorney explains, “It was never intended to protect Latinos from Latinos. It was designed to protect them from high-crime areas.” He’s wrong, but it doesn’t matter. Evelin is in trouble, because she is Latina and her attacker was Latino. What if Teresa Sheehan had been Latina?

What if Teresa Sheehan had been Black or Latina? Would perceived race or ethne have affected the intensity with which police officers barged in, blinded a woman in need of help, and then shot her five times? Would she be alive today?


(Photo Credit: Patricia C. Sheehan / The Guardian)