Safety concerns prompt OHSU to mull gun rules

From the Portland Tribune, November 6 2008

Safety concerns prompt OHSU to mull gun rules – Lethal weapons in psychiatic unit may put patients at risk

The head of public safety at Oregon Health & Science University wants officers such as Jess Gillies to be able carry guns, which currently is illegal. The university has created a task force to study the pros and cons of armed campus security and may lobby the Legislature to change the law.

When it comes to guns, nearly everyone has a nightmare.

The head of public safety at Oregon Health & Science University wants officers such as Jess Gillies to be able carry guns, which currently is illegal.

The head of public safety at Oregon Health & Science University wants officers such as Jess Gillies to be able carry guns, which currently is illegal.

Gary Granger’s version can take many forms. Granger, public safety director for Oregon Health & Science University, fears that some day, a gunman similar to those who killed people at Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois universities will launch a similar attack at OHSU. Or someone will assault an OHSU physician or student or patient in a campus parking lot late at night.

And always, in Granger’s nightmare, his public safety force will be left without one tool they might desperately need in such a situation – a gun.

Though most private security officers in Oregon can carry guns, OHSU public safety officers are prohibited by the state statute that created the university as a public corporation.

But Margaret Brayden has a different nightmare.

Her nightmare is that her 39-year-old son, who suffers from schizophrenia and has been treated at a number of local hospitals, will get shot by a well-meaning hospital public safety officer who does carry a gun.

Brayden says she has seen her son become agitated upon seeing a police car with its lights flashing, and can envision him at OHSU reacting the same simply by seeing a public safety officer approach with a gun on his hip.

“My biggest fear every day is that my son could be shot because of a lack of understanding,” says Brayden, acting director for the nonprofit National Alliance on Mental Illness Multnomah.

Granger’s and Brayden’s nightmares are colliding these days. Granger would like Oregon law changed so that his public safety officers can carry guns, rather than have to call and wait for Portland police every time there is a threat of violence at OHSU. The university’s president, Joe Robertson, has formed a task force to consider lobbying the Legislature for a law change.

OHSU, Granger says, is more like an open university campus than a hospital. And some Oregon universities do have armed security, Granger says. Oregon State University contracts with the Oregon State Police, he says, and the University of Oregon contracts with the city of Eugene police, which provides armed officers 24 hours a day.

Activist: ‘That is a danger’

But Jason Renaud, a longtime activist with the nonprofit Mental Health Association of Portland, agrees with Brayden’s concerns.

Renaud says he is certain that if OHSU decides to arm its officers with guns, eventually somebody suffering mental illness will get shot.

Renaud, a long-standing member of the association’s board, says that his organization would respond to the arming of OHSU officers by advising supporters in the mental health community, many of whom are patients, to stay away from OHSU.

“They’re not dangerous. They’re not violent. But they are unpredictable,” Renaud says of psychiatric patients. “We would consider OHSU to be a very dangerous place. If you put a man with a gun at the gate of a hospital, people are going to act out. And that is a danger to both the patients and the staff.”

Both Renaud and Granger are aware of the last time a Portland resident was shot at a local hospital. In 2001, psychiatric patient Jose Santos Victor Mejia Poot, a 29-year-old Mexican national, was shot and killed by Portland police after being held at the now-closed Pacific Gateway Hospital in Southeast Portland. Pacific Gateway did not have its own security staff.

Granger says the Mejia case illustrates the need for hospital officers with specialized training to handle difficult patients. Renaud says that properly trained security guards at Pacific Gateway – without guns – might have defused the situation, rendering guns unnecessary.

Safety officers get many calls

Much of what concerns Granger is hypothetical, Renaud says. Events such as a Virginia Tech-style rampaging gunman haven’t happened at OHSU.

But Granger counters that his worries spring from reality.

Calls to the public safety office about suspicious people in the parking garage happen routinely, Granger says. Six to 10 times per year, OHSU officers are called in because staff members are worried an employee, student, patient or former patient might become violent, or has started a fight.

And about twice a day, OHSU officers are called to the hospital psychiatric unit to help staff either try to calm down or restrain patients with mental illness who have gotten out of control, Granger says.

Granger says his officers use their holstered Tasers fewer than a half-dozen times a year, but they do use them.

Granger says if the decision is made to arm OHSU officers with guns, he would not allow weapons onto the psychiatric unit. But if an officer needs to deal with a psychotic patient, he says, better his men, who are accustomed to dealing with those patients, than Portland police, who are called in when there are threats of violence or the need for guns.

“Asking police officers to come here and deal with our patients is unfair,” Granger says. “It’s unfair to the patients and it’s unfair to the officers.”

And, Granger says, it takes time, on average 10 to 15 minutes from the time a 911 call is made until five Portland police officers are assembled to form a contact team, as required before officers can move on a campus shooter.

Granger would like to organize his 40-officer force into two groups, one armed, the other not. Regular security patrols might be handled by unarmed officers, with armed officers always on call, or patrolling only areas where a confrontation with a psychiatric patient is less likely. He would have Oregon law changed so all his officers would go through police academy training similar to that of Portland police.

Weapons allowed by some

Guns already are present at OHSU, Granger says. On any given day, about a half-dozen corrections officers with guns are guarding patients who also are prisoners, and police detectives are interviewing rape victims. Even the courier who services the campus cash machine is armed, Granger says.

There is one hospital in Portland where security officers are armed with guns, Granger says. The Portland Veterans Administration Medical Center, which shares campus space with OHSU, has been arming its public safety officers for about 10 years.

David Drummond, an OHSU assistant professor of psychiatry who also works at the VA, says he and others originally were unsure about guns at the VA, especially considering the hospital’s patient population, which includes many who suffer psychiatric disorders and have a history of being around guns.

Drummond, who created a VA program on managing violence with high-risk patients, says that none of the Portland VA officers have fired their weapons in the past 10 years, though a few shootings have taken place at other

VA hospitals around the country.

“It’s made a believer out of me,” Drummond says. “We have it all here, and I think our psychiatric patients are feeling more secure these days because we have visible, well-trained and armed police officers.”

Still, Jason Renaud disagrees that OHSU’s psychiatric patients would feel safer. “Bringing guns into the mix would endanger everyone,” he says.

OHSU’s task force will decide whether to pursue a law change by Nov. 14. The task force will meet at 6 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 6, at University Place, 310 S.W. Lincoln St.

Public testimony is welcome.