Security staff at S.F. General have a complex job 

click to enlarge San Francisco General Hospital
  • Mike Koozmin/S.F. Examiner file photo
  • A security officer speaks to a patient wandering outside San Francisco General Hospital during an October incident.
When a white Chihuahua bit a San Francisco General Hospital security officer on the hand Sept. 30, the experience was no doubt jarring. But it pales in comparison to the daily security issues at the busy public institution.

From Sept. 19 to Oct. 8, the weeks before missing patient Lynne Spalding was found dead in a hospital stairwell, there were more than 30 incidents reported, according to records obtained by The San Francisco Examiner. They included thefts, assaults, trespassing and vandalism, and issues involving mentally ill patients.

While the hospital and its Sheriff’s Department-run security staff have faced unrelenting criticism since Spalding was found in a seldom-used stairwell Oct. 8, the daily security challenges appear to be myriad. Former security staff argue the criticism has been ignorant of the complex environment at S.F. General.

“It’s been terribly unfair,” Stephen La Plante, former chief of the Department of Public Health’s institutional police officer force, said of the media coverage. “I’m simply disappointed that the folks in The City that should be explaining to everyone the complexity of working there haven’t spoken up.”

Take, for instance, Sept. 20.

At 1 p.m. that day, while breaking up an argument between two patients, a nurse was injured.

At 11:30 p.m., a female patient had to be restrained by officers and sedated after nearly dislocating the arm of the nurse who was treating her.

When officers came to the scene, they found the patient “wearing a ‘spit mask’ [a meshlike head cover used to prevent spittle from passing from one person to another] … actively attempting to spit and bite medical staff.” The patient had “become combative and kicked [the] victim in her left arm with such force that the victim’s body was thrown into a cabinet.”

On other days there were more serious incidents.

A male dialysis patient was arrested Sept. 27 after pulling a knife on a nurse.

The man became upset because someone had taken his dialysis chair. When the nurse on duty tried to calm him, he started cursing and then pulled out a knife and pointed it at the nurse.

Another day, Sept. 20, security responded to a battery case in a part of the hospital that deals with psychiatric emergencies after a homeless woman who was brought to the hospital for “assaultive behavior” threw urine at a doctor.

“I had my back facing one of the patient bathrooms,” wrote the doctor as part of the incident report. Then the patient came “out of the bathroom and threw an entire container of urine directly at me, without any provocation. The urine soaked my hair, my shirt … soaked through my undershirt, and soaked my pants.”

The doctor wrote that the patient laughed and yelled that she had thrown “pee.”

The patient was arrested, cited for battery and finally released.

And Oct. 4, a woman came to the hospital reporting that her daughter was reacting badly to drugs she had taken. Officers who went to the woman’s white van found the woman’s naked, adult daughter and three young children. The naked woman, who possessed a heroin-administering kit along with other drugs, told officers, “I’m fine, there’s nothing wrong with me, my mom is lying. I was hot and that’s why I had my clothes off.” The adult daughter was arrested and the children were placed in the custody of Child Protective Services.

Such examples are common at the hospital, said a representative for the S.F. Institutional Police Officers’ Association, which represents institutional police officers, who, along with sheriff’s deputies, patrol the hospital. IPOs were once the hospital’s only security until the Sheriff’s Department incorporated them into its ranks more than a decade ago.

“For every incident that rises to the level of a police report being generated, there’s a bunch of little brush fires,” said the representative, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation against the labor group’s members.

“It is pretty wild,” said the union rep. “They have guns drawn, they’ve had fights, they’ve had officers injured, they’ve had officers do heroic things.”

These incidents should be put into context, said La Plante. The hospital is one of only two dozen in the U.S. with professional security, and that’s for good reason — it’s an inner-city hospital serving some of the neediest patients, and has The City’s only trauma center and only involuntary psych ward.

About The Author

Jonah Owen Lamb

Jonah Owen Lamb

Bio:
Born and raised on a houseboat in Sausalito, Lamb has written for newspapers in New York City, Utah and the San Joaquin Valley. He was most recently an editor at the San Luis Obispo Tribune for nearly three years. He has written for The S.F. Examiner since 2013 and covers criminal justice and planning.
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