By: James HowellStaff Writerjhowell@civitasmedia.com
April 17, 2013
Ashe County Sheriff James Williams and the N.C. Sheriffs’ Association oppose a new bill proposed by N.C. Rep. Jonathan Jordan that would expand the law enforcement authority of hospital police officers employed by Ashe Memorial Hospital.
The bill, titled HB 533, would allow hospital police like James Hendrix, police chief of Ashe Memorial Hospital, to enter into mutual aid agreements with the Ashe County Sheriffs’ Office and the Jefferson and West Jefferson Police Departments.
“It said in the bill he (Hendrix) could expand his jurisdiction to the entire county if the sheriff allowed it,” said Williams. “I would not enter a mutual aid agreement with the hospital.”
Need for the Bill
“I can’t see when I would need mutual aid with the hospital police,” said Williams.
According to Jordan, HB 533 was proposed to combat the involuntary commitment situation that has been an issue in Ashe County for several years.
An involuntary commitment is the legal process when people who are suffering from a mental health emergency are escorted to a local hospital. This process begins when county deputies and town police transport anyone suffering from a mental health crisis to Ashe Memorial Hospital to be evaluated. Afterword, the patient waits until a bed at a mental health facility becomes available.
Under current regulations, a hospital police officer has no authority over the patient beyond hospital walls. If the patient walked out of the hospital’s doors, hospital police do not have the authority to retrieve them.
“Their take on it is when they have an involuntary commitment, hospital police don’t have the authority to chase down a commitment if they leave the building,” said Williams.
Williams said Hendrix should have the authority to detain those patients on the hospital’s campus, including the parking lot and roads adjacent to the campus. However, Williams opposed expanding hospital police authority to the entire county.
“I do not have a problem with the first part of the bill that included the campus and parking lot, and the roads running through it (the hospital’s campus), but I see no need for it in the county or municipalities,” said Williams.
He also said the chances of needing to use a mutual aid agreement with hospital security to detain a patient are “slim to none.”
Deputies from ACSO usually stay at the hospital with a respondent if they are violent or have a history of violence or mental illness, said Williams.
Rep. Jordan said allowing hospital police to expand their authority would free ACSO deputies to perform their normal tasks, freeing much needed manpower from wasting away in Ashe Memorial Hospital.
Williams, however, isn’t concerned about respondents escaping from the hospital. Williams pointed out the ASCO and Jefferson Police Department are in close proximity to AMH, and can quickly respond to any situation.
“We’re just across the street. We’d come running to help anytime he needs anything,” said Williams. “We can be on the scene probably before they get to the foot of the hill,” said Williams about an escaped patient.
According to Williams, the N.C. Sheriffs’ Association voted to oppose HB 533 during their annual legislative meeting in Raleigh from April 9-10.
“We met last week; all the sheriffs in the state meet once a year to discuss bills of interest,” said Williams. “We voted to oppose the bill.”
“After we meet, we go to the legislature and talk about the bills we support or oppose,” said Williams. “It is a pretty powerful lobby.”
Jordan said he didn’t know why the sheriffs’ association would become involved in a local bill like HB 533, which only applies to Ashe County Hospital.
“They must see it as a precedent statewide,” said Jordan. He also pointed out the bill isn’t forcing the ACSO to be involved with mutual aid.
“It gives the option to Sheriff Williams to sign a mutual aid agreement with hospital police,” said Jordan. “He doesn’t have to involve hospital police if he doesn’t want to.”
Jamie Markham, from the UNC School of Government, said any type of expansion of authority for officers working outside the sheriff’s office is usually opposed by the sheriff’s association.
“This is interesting because it looks like hospital police can only respond outside their jurisdiction if they contact the sheriff. Still, I’m sure the sheriff’s association isn’t too happy with this,” said Markham in retrospect.
According to Williams, he was never consulted about the bill, or asked his opinion about the bill’s possible impact, before it was filed by Jordan. Williams said he learned about HB 533 when the N.C. Sheriffs’ Association sent him a legislative report on Friday, April 5.
“That was the first I heard about it,” said Williams. “I wish Rep. Jordan would have called to get my opinion about it.”
According to Jordan, he did contact Williams through email giving him details about the bill, and one of his aides followed up with a telephone call after there was no reply to the email, but he, or the aide, never spoke with Williams. After leaving a message and not receiving a response from Williams about the proposal, Jordan moved forward with HB 533.
“Before I introduced it, I involved Sheriff Williams and Sheriff Hagaman (from Watauga County), along with people from Appalachian Regional Healthcare,” said Jordan.
Jefferson Police Chief David Neaves and West Jefferson Police Chief Jeff Rose were not consulted about the bill before its introduction in the House of Representatives, but Rose said Jordan discussed the bill with him afterwards.
Eddie Caldwell, the executive vice president and general council of the N.C. Sheriffs’ Association, said Williams wasn’t only opposed to expanding campus police authority in Ashe County, he also opposes potential changes in jurisdiction across North Carolina.
“The hospital police are company police, and the history of company police stretches back almost to the beginning of our country with the railroad police,” said Caldwell. He also said the definition of company police has evolved since then.
“Company police can have jurisdiction of the company but not outside of it,” said Caldwell, unless they are in hot pursuit.
“They cannot initiate law enforcement activities off company property,” said Caldwell. According to him, this is the difference between company police and other law enforcement officials.
Another difference between company police and law enforcement officials is what Caldwell called “recourse.”
According to Caldwell, if a deputy who works for the Ashe County Sheriff’s Office is “ugly” to a person, the victim has recourse with Sheriff Williams.
“You can go right to Sheriff Williams, ask to see him, and I bet you’ll see him,” said Caldwell, “and Sheriff Williams will straighten that out, or you have recourse at the ballot box.”
However, said Caldwell, if an officer who works for the hospital is “ugly” to someone outside of AMH’s jurisdiction, recourse for the victim isn’t guaranteed because the officer is an employee under an appointed, not elected, hospital board.
“This is about what is the jurisdiction of company police who work for a private corporation,” said Caldwell. “If they want authority citywide, they need to apply for a job with the city police. If they want authority countywide, they need to apply for a job with the sheriff’s office.”
Caldwell said hospital administrators typically oppose the expansion of authority for company police.
“They don’t want pay for officers riding around town when they should be protecting people in the hospital,” said Caldwell. “They also don’t want to pay for a legal battle if the hospital is sued for something a company officer did outside their jurisdiction.”
However, according to Caldwell, AMH now supports the expansion of hospital police authority.
R.D. Williams, chief executive officer of Ashe Memorial Hospital, said hospital administration sees a need for the expansion of police authority because of the involuntary commitment issue.
He said ACSO deputies and surrounding police officers are usually available to respond if an involuntary commitment escapes the hospital. However, there are certain time periods, like late at night, that officers are not as readily available to respond to an escaped commitment.
“All we are trying to do is assist the local law enforcement agencies in responding to this problem,” said R.D. Williams.
He also said HB 533 is similar to another local bill proposed in 2008 that would have allowed hospital police the authority to direct traffic outside of Ashe Memorial Hospital, which was also opposed by the sheriffs’ association. In part, HB 533 and the 2008 bill were suggested by R.D. Williams and AMH administration.
Hendrix, the police chief at AMH, also supports HB 533.
“As part of our vision statement at Ashe Memorial Hospital, we strive to maintain an environment which promotes safety, satisfaction and opportunity for the patients, employees, the physicians, and the community. HB 533 will enable the Ashe Memorial Hospital Police Department to fulfill that vision by providing a safe environment for our patients, visitors and staff,” said Hendrix.