As Police Investigate Potential Hospital Crimes, Security Staff Says Incidents Are Rare

For the second time in three years, St. Paul police are investigating allegations of possible violent crimes against older, female patients at St. Joseph's Hospital.

But experts in hospital security insist that serious crimes against patients are very rare.

In fact, a state Health Department report issued in January found only one "criminal event" in Minnesota hospitals between July 1, 2003, and Oct. 6, 2004. That case involved a minor scuffle between a patient and a visitor.

The incident took place at Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis after which no charges were filed.

"That study is the most definitive resource we have to show Minnesotans how rare insistences like the one being alleged are," said John Manning, a spokesman for the Minnesota Hospital Association.

State law requires hospitals to report deaths and injuries caused by assaults that occur within hospital grounds. The next report will come out in February.

"Anyone admitted to a hospital is considered vulnerable, and it's our responsibility to protect them," said Mark Lappe, safety and security director at Hennepin County Medical Center. "Our challenge is to strike a balance between the need to be open to family and friends and protecting patients and employees."

The St. Joseph's cases

A search warrant affidavit filed in Ramsey County this week revealed some suspicious circumstances surrounding the Nov. 12 death of 79-year-old Olivia Geller of St. Paul.

She was being treated at St. Joseph's with pneumonia, too weak to get out of bed on her own. According to the affidavit, a nurse found her naked body on the floor at 3:20 a.m. with her gown across the room.

She died from a head injury caused by a fall, and lacerations to her face and a bruise on her hand "could be defensive wounds," the affidavit said.

Police said Friday that the Ramsey County medical examiner's office was not notified about Geller's death, so it was unable to investigate. There are now plans to exhume her body for an autopsy.

But news of the investigation stunned Joan, a 45-year-old woman from Edina. Her last name is being withheld to protect the privacy of her mother, who alleges that she was sexually assaulted as a patient at St. Joseph's on May 24, 2003, when she was 81.

"It made me sick because the reason I aggressively pursued her case was I didn't want something like it to happen to somebody else," Joan said.

Police and St. Joseph's investigated her mother's allegations, but because she never saw the assailant's face, no one was ever arrested or charged.

Scott Batulis, St. Joseph's CEO, said the internal investigation found there were no reports of suspicious people at the hospital that day "nor do we have any suspicious people working at the hospital that we think could be a perpetrator of such crimes," according to a letter from the CEO to the family.

In that letter, Batulis acknowledged that most hospitals, including St, Joseph's, "are still quite accessible to the public." He said he would personally oversee an improved security plan.

Batulis wasn't available to comment, but Anne Sonnee, a spokeswoman for HealthEast, which runs St. Joseph's, said most of the new safety plan has been gradually put in place.

Sonnee said that plan includes new employee badges with magnetic strips needed to enter many locked doors. Surveillance cameras have been added and an alarm system has been installed.

"From a security standpoint, we believe St. Joseph's is a very safe hospital, and any criminal activity would be very, very rare," Sonnee said. "We don't think it's a rampant problem whatsoever, and people shouldn't be concerned about coming to the hospital for care because patients and employees are safe."

Checking in with others

Remaining accessible but safe is a challenge for all hospitals, especially in urban locations.

At Abbott Northwestern Hospital in south Minneapolis, the campus is open in the daytime. But, like in many hospitals, all night-time visitors are funneled through one emergency room entrance.

Abbott security director Sue Durkin said a guard at the door asks visitors to sign in and explain why they're there, and only then do they get a visitor sticker.

Rick Huston, plant operations director at Regions Hospital in St. Paul, said women in labor or those visiting dying patients often are late-night visitors.

Special locking mechanisms, off-duty police officers and dozens of surveillance cameras are used at Regions to check late-night visitors.

At Hennepin County Medical Center, where more than 300,000 people visit clinics and hospital rooms a year, 200 close-circuit cameras are used.

"Many times, these people are in very stressful, highly charged situations and de-escalating conflicts is important," said Lappe, HCMC's safety director. "To actually have an assault or something happen to a patient is very rare."