New bill would expand powers of AMH security officers
by James Howell
A new bill sponsored by Rep. Jonathan Jordan would expand the authority of security officers at Ashe Memorial Hospital and allow the creation of mutual aid agreements between hospital police and other law enforcement departments.
“The bottom line is statutes that apply to company police (like hospital police) makes them a step below other officers,” said Jordan.
House Bill 533, proposed on April 4, 2013, will “expand the arrest and law enforcement authority of hospital police officers in Ashe County.”
“Company police officers, while in the performance of their duties of employment, have the same powers as municipal and county police officers to make arrests for both felonies and misdemeanors and to charge for infractions,” reads HB 533.
One of the reasons for the bill’s proposal, said Jordan, is the involuntary commitment issue in Ashe County.
An involuntary commitment is the legal process that people suffering from mental health issues are escorted to treatment facilities.
If someone in a mental health crisis, known to law enforcement officials as a “respondent,” lives within the city limits of Jefferson or West Jefferson, that town’s respective police department is responsible picking up the respondent and transporting them to Ashe Memorial Hospital.
Once the respondent has signed in, they wait inside the hospital until room in a mental health facility becomes available.
Under current regulations, a hospital police officer has no authority over a respondent beyond hospital walls. If a respondent walked out of the hospital’s doors, hospital police do not have the authority to retrieve them.
According to Paige Stephens, Daymark’s unit director for Ashe and Alleghany counties, Ashe Memorial Hospital temporarily housed 102 involuntary commitments that could not establish solid safety plans from Nov. 1, 2011 to Sept. 30, 2012.
After receiving information about the number of involuntary commitments who arrive at the hospital, and how much time officers spend getting commitments the services they need, Jordan sponsored HB 533 to hopefully combat the involuntary commitment issue.
“This is a local bill,” said Jordan, and as such, HB 533 applies to Ashe Memorial Hospital only. According to Jordan, local bills pass through the General Assembly quite often.
Jordan said extending this bill to apply to each hospital in the state would “complicate” the process, and slow the bill’s progress through the General Assembly.
Seeing the involuntary commitment situation is Ashe County, Jordan said he didn’t want to slow the bill’s progress. He also said local bills pass through the general assembly on a regular basis.
“We want to check it out and see how it works,” said Jordan about the bill. If the bill works well at Ashe Memorial Hospital, members of the general assembly might consider applying this bill to the entire state.
Ashe Memorial Hospital supports the proposal, according its police chief.
“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 physician, 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 Ashe Memorial Hospital Chief of Police James Hendrix.
Jordan said he also discussed applying the bill to Watauga County with Shawn Peele, the director of public safety at Appalachian Regional Healthcare.
According to Jordan, Peele responded by saying he didn’t see any need for this extension of authority in Watauga County.
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