As violence begins to bleed over into hospitals and emergency rooms, some providers are looking to stem that tide by forming their own police forces. While that may provide a stronger response to on-site incidents than traditional security guards, it also opens hospitals up by hundreds of millions of dollars worth of liability if the officers aren't trained properly.
While the move toward incorporating in-house police officers—fully authorized to carry deadly weapons and make binding arrests—may seem prudent on the surface, it may serve to cause more problems than it solves.
Police misconduct getting more attention
Over the last year, a greater light has been shed on the issue of police misconduct, and it's a problem that may be larger than anyone realizes. The Washington, DC-based think tank Cato Institute recently launched a new Web site called policemisconduct.net, which documents mainstream news reports of police misconduct around the country. Each day, new cases are logged, with links to the news sources reporting them, and the list is getting lengthy. Even the New York Times has started a topics page documenting all the police violence stories the paper has published, with more than 6,500 entries.
While there are no comprehensive statistics available on whether police misconduct is more the exception than the rule, there is a lot of data that documents how much police misconduct costs the municipalities who get tagged with lawsuits filed by people injured wrongfully by police officers. A quick warning for hospital financial managers: the figures below may induce heart palpitations.
MuckRock, which describes itself as "a collaborative news site that brings together journalists, researchers, activists, and regular citizens to request, analyze and share government documents," has amassed a database of police misconduct lawsuit judgments. According to the site, the city of Philadelphia.has paid out more than $40 million in settlements over nearly 600 police misconduct cases filed since 2009.
But that's tip money compared to New York City, which Bloomberg News reported back in 2012 planned at the time (before Ferguson and before the death of Eric Martin) to spend $735 million to settle cases of alleged police abuse filed against the city. That's the total net worth of some of the corporations who own hospitals, and these are only two examples from two individual police forces.
Statistically, it's inevitable that, at some point, an officer employed at a hospital will overreact or make a mistake. Will hospital administrators have the stomach to start handing out multi-million dollar payoffs related to police misconduct? Will the hospital attorneys even have the knowledge base to defend against these cases, or will hospitals have to bring in high-priced legal teams with more experience in police matters?
The Pandora's box of trouble associated with having their own police departments is filled with a wide variety of dilemmas that hospitals are inexperienced and ill-equipped to manage. Moreover, the officers being hired may not likely be experienced in the types of violence experienced in hospitals.
After all, the rules that apply when pursuing criminals in the streets are very different when the violence is taking place in a hospital ward populated by sick patients. A drug dealer or an armed thief is a very different threat than a patient with mental health issues or a grief-stricken family member. Training—and lots of it, with a focus on the kinds of incidents that take place in a medical setting—is going to be the key to reducing the number of lawsuits that hospitals with their own police departments will experience.
However, training will not contain the entire problem. Lawsuits related to alleged police misconduct will happen, because even people who were not mishandled can file a lawsuit with the hope that the hospital would rather settle than fight. The more frightening danger is that introducing modern law enforcement tactics to a medical setting on a daily basis—especially if officers are insufficiently trained—will result in innocent people getting hurt.
While hospitals may have good intentions, managing a dedicated police force can create serious and complex problems. Let's hope hospitals think things through before they take such a major step.