It is clear that several critical factors lead to this tragic event. A Root Cause Analysis (RCA), required by the Joint Commission following any sentinel event, will undoubtedly identify the causative factors.
But can this type of tragic sentinel event been avoided?
For the moment let's set aside the issue of whether or not hospital security officers should be armed or unarmed, and the pros and cons of contract guard services vs. a proprietary security force. The Blacksburg, Va., incident involves the issue of gun retention by a Sheriff's deputy guarding a forensic patient and the ensuing death of an unarmed hospital security guard.
Gun retention is a much debated issue among law enforcement professionals. Training courses across the U.S. teach body positioning and gun retention. Officers are trained to protect and maintain control of their weapons at all costs, but they still occasionally lose control of them. Statistics are not kept on how often law enforcement officers lose control of their firearms, but FBI data indicates that about 10 percent of felonious police deaths nationwide from 2000 to 2004 involved officers being killed by their own weapons.
The threat of gun violence on health care providers does not always come from unauthorized weapons brought into the facility. Several instances, including this most recent event in Blacksburg, record an officer, medical practitioner or innocent bystander being shot with the officer's weapon lost during a struggle in the emergency room or on hospital grounds. Training in gun retention in all situations is an essential element for all armed officers. When charged with guarding forensic patients, it is equally incumbent upon the officer to maintain control of their weapon. Loss of a weapon renders an officer incapable of guarding their prisoner or protecting health care workers or others who may then be placed in imminent danger.
Many psychiatric hospitals for example require law enforcement officers to remove their weapons prior to entering the facility, and to secure them in special weapon lock boxes. These special circumstances are generally known to local law enforcement officials. Although an armed officer may be reluctant to surrender his or her weapon, they will honor the hospital's policies and procedures when properly informed and educated by their superiors who need to work in close cooperation with the hospital's security director.
In acute care facilities, if the hospital's Emergency Department has lock down capabilities and metal detectors, which is becoming the standard across the country, careful consideration should be given to using this same type of lock box process. Alternatively, all law enforcement officers as well as armed hospital security staff should be thoroughly trained in proper gun retention. Armed personnel should wear level-3 or level-4 firearm security holsters, and receive appropriate training in their use. Every effort must be made to reduce the possibility of losing control of firearms in the healthcare setting.
Sympathy Can Lead to Tragedy
One of the cardinal rules for law enforcement officers guarding prisoners is that they are never to become personally involved in the care of a prisoner. The law enforcement officer must remain free to observe the prisoner at all times, and to act immediately to protect the public if needed. Hospital administrators and staff must be educated on this fact, and it should be clearly stated in the hospital's forensic patient policy. When an officer escorts a prisoner to the hospital for treatment, it is their responsibility to guard that prisoner at all times. This responsibility should not be transferred to the hospital.