by DARIEN LAMEN
(WXIR-Rochester) Pepper gel... baton strikes... pressure point holds… and a bent arm bar resulting in a broken arm... These are some of the law enforcement techniques Public Safety officers have used on patients at the University of Rochester Medical Center.
And last year, they landed the facility in hot water with the state health department.
Newly available documents show that in April of 2018, the New York State Department of Health conducted a complaint investigation at Strong Memorial Hospital that resulted in several citations and a $10,000 dollar fine.
In a Statement of Deficiencies dated April 30, 2018, DOH concluded that the hospital "failed to protect and promote each patient’s rights by permitting the use of law enforcement techniques as a means of subduing and restraining patients. The use of law enforcement techniques in the healthcare setting could result in harm to patients,” the statement of deficiencies says.
In all 20 of the cases it reviewed for the period of May 2017 to April 2018, DOH found that Public Safety officers had used law enforcement tools and techniques to restrain and subdue patients.
These included the use of metal handcuffs, pepper gel, batons, body strikes, pressure point holds and arm bars.
The most notable incident took place in January of 2018. DOH found that officers were called to assist with a patient who was observed "banging her head against a wall." The report states that two officers used a bent arm bar to restrain her, while a third attempted to secure her legs.
According to medical and security records, a "pop" was heard, and the patient complained of arm pain. She was transported to the pediatric emergency department and diagnosed with a broken upper arm.
Earlier this week I followed up with DPS Chief Mark Fischer to ask whether DPS had conducted any investigation or taken disciplinary action against the officers involved with the January 2018 incident.
Chip Partner, a spokesperson for the hospital responded, saying that privacy law prevents the university from discussing the findings of a specific review or actions taken. However, Partner said their investigation and response to the incident was accepted by DOH and that "every use of force by Public Safety officers is reviewed at supervisory and leadership levels, including the Internal Affairs unit."
As part of its settlement with DOH, Strong Memorial Hospital signed a statement in October of 2018 admitting there was "substantial evidence" that violations of the state regulation governing patients' rights and use of restraints occurred. The hospital agreed to pay a fine of $10,000 to settle the matter.
Back in November, before documents from the DOH investigation became publicly available, I asked Chief Fischer about the use of pepper gel in the hospital setting, and about his response to the Department of Health’s investigation.
Fischer defended the use of pepper gel, saying, "Those techniques were part of their training. The pepper gel is a very non-contact way to calm a violent person. You don't have to go 'hands on' with somebody when you use pepper gel. So it's a very good way to stop violent behavior without hurting someone or getting the officers hurt."
Fischer explained that officers decided not to make arrests in such situations where "those individuals were mentally incapacitated."
However, he said DPS had to change its policy after being told by the Department of Health, "you always have to make an arrest if you're going to use handcuffs, pepper gel, or baton. And we argued back and said, but there was an underlying crime committed in each of those instances and we chose not to arrest in the interest of the patient. But they didn't want to hear that. All they said was you can't use them unless you make an arrest."
Roughly one year after the Department of Public Safety updated its policies to disallow the use of law enforcement techniques on patients, except in cases where officers are making an arrest, how have outcomes for patients changed?
According to hospital spokesperson Chip Partner, DPS has made 15 arrests of patients using law enforcement tools or techniques over the past 11 months. In most of those cases, patients were charged with harassment or disorderly conduct.
That number is down somewhat from the 20 cases DOH reviewed for the previous 12-month period.
The major change now is that patients subjected to law enforcement techniques are also being arrested.
DARIEN LAMEN is news producer/director for Reclaiming the Narrative. He can reached at firstname.lastname@example.org