Should OHSU security officers carry guns?

Opinion Editorial from the Portland Tribune, December 4, 2008

By Roy Silberstein, president of the Mental Health Association of Portland, and Beckie Child, president of Mental Health America of Oregon.

OHSU gross anatomy class, about 1920

OHSU gross anatomy class, about 1920

An Oregon Health & Science University task force has determined the hospital is at risk for an armed assault by unknown assailants.

This conclusion may surprise the thousands of peaceful daily visitors, including patients, family members, faculty and staff because, according to a search of the past 10 years of local news archives, OHSU has not experienced gun violence.

The task force’s basis for judging this risk is obscure, but it has made a proposal to the OHSU board of directors to both train and arm security guards with guns.

As an advocate for patient rights, the Mental Health Association of Portland opposes this conclusion and urges the OHSU board to ignore the proposal.

Disoriented and demented people who pose no threat come daily to OHSU for medical treatments.

They include elderly people, people with ailments like Alzheimer’s, epilepsy and schizophrenia.

They include veterans with brain injuries, sleepy students attending lectures, distressed people coming to the emergency room, people detoxing from drugs, and people who are grieving. Helping these people is the mission of the hospital.

People with mental illness or other cognitive dysfunction come to OHSU for healing and safety. They come to the hospital because their behaviors are aberrant, because they misunderstand communication, because they seem strange to others, because they want help.

And they have special needs – foremost is understanding, empathy and compassion.

The behaviors of these people occasionally require intervention by OHSU security guards, but we believe issuing handguns and rifles poses a direct lethal danger to these innocent people and those who care for them.

Adding guns as an option for OHSU security guards will result in an expensive tragedy – someone is going to get killed.

The proposal suggests OHSU doesn’t sufficiently train security guards to anticipate problems for people in crisis. This training is well-recognized and, understanding this risk, the Portland Police Bureau is an excellent role model.

After the death of James Chasse Jr., Mayor Tom Potter and Police Chief Rosie Sizer ordered crisis intervention training for all officers.

The case of Jose Mejia Poot, a misdiagnosed person in a locked psychiatric ward who was shot and killed by three police officers in Portland in 2001, illustrates how the mere presence of guns in a hospital setting can result in tragedy.

The public reaction to the Mejia shooting resulted in apologies and reparations from the mayor and the closure of Portland’s Pacific Gateway Hospital.

Has there been gun violence at other hospitals? Yes, but rarely.

We found news stories about police officers being disarmed and shot by criminals they were escorting, of gang violence in Los Angeles, of staff members shooting one another, and security guards shooting visitors and each other.

Each story is tragic, and rare – by our count, roughly 50 nationwide incidents in the past 20 years.

From our perspective, adding guns to this situation is never a good idea. It never leads to safety or security. It always leads to someone getting shot. It always leads to a false sense of security. And security guards requesting guns always is the result of undertraining and undermanagement.

If OHSU changes policy to allow security guards to use guns, it is only a matter of time before one of our friends or family members is killed.