Policing under disability law

Jamelia N. Morgan*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

20 Scopus citations


In recent years, there has been increased attention to the problem of police violence against disabled people. Disabled people are overrepresented in police killings and, in a number of cities, police use-of-force incidents. Further, though police violence dominates the discussion of policing, disabled people also disproportionately experience more ordinary forms of policing that can lead to police violence. For example, disabled people, particularly those with untreated psychiatric disabilities, are vulnerable to policing even in medical facilities—the very places they seek to access care. Many are also arrested pursuant to aggressive enforcement policies aimed at removing so-called unwanted persons or regulating those labeled disruptive or disorderly. Though they pose no risk of physical harm, some are arrested and taken to jail, at times simply because they have no place else to go. This Article centers disability theory as a lens for understanding the problems of policing and police violence as they impact disabled people. In doing so, the Article examines how federal disability law addresses these ongoing problems. Disabled plaintiffs have alleged disability discrimination and challenged policing and police violence under both Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, another federal disability law and the precursor to the ADA. The Supreme Court has yet to decide whether Title II of the ADA applies to arrests, and federal appellate courts are split on whether and to what extent Title II’s antidiscrimination provisions apply to street encounters and arrests. Although the Court granted certiorari to a case presenting the question, City & County of San Francisco v. Sheehan, it subsequently dismissed that question as improvidently granted. There is no telling when the question will reach the Supreme Court again, but before it does, it is important to develop a theory not just of liability but also of disability under Title II that is consistent with the text, history, and animating goals of the ADA. Courts are already adopting a theory of disability that informs how they decide policing cases under Title II: the medical model of disability. However, that theory is inconsistent with that reflected by the ADA and the ADA Amendments of 2008, and it leads courts to pay insufficient attention to disability as a social construction. I examine cases showing how the ADA—contrary to its celebrated goals of access and social inclusion—has been interpreted to exclude a class of individuals from civil rights protection and from the entitlement to an accommodation by law enforcement. Ultimately, I show how the medical model of disability in policing cases serves to limit the broad scope of protections available under the ADA that could otherwise be used to push back against such disability-based subordination. Adopting and incorporating a social model of disability—that is, viewing disability as a social construction—requires a reexamination of extant legal standards regarding causation, intentional discrimination, disparate impact, and deference to law enforcement under the ADA. As I argue, the social model of disability is not only more consistent with the animating goals of the ADA but also more attuned to the social meanings at play that work to expose disabled people to policing and police violence. By centering a social model of disability in cases challenging disability-based discrimination under federal disability laws—and by incorporating disability law into ongoing public activism, discourse, and policymaking on policing—we can better identify and redress the harms stemming from the policing of disability along with the long-standing social problem of police violence.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1401-1469
Number of pages69
JournalStanford Law Review
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jun 2021

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Law


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