Letters to the Editor

Viewpoint: State hospital police need equal legal protection

Nestled in the rolling hills of the safe and serene Central Coast is one of the most violent places in all of America — Atascadero State Hospital.

The plight of hospital police officer Amanda Ferrari is the most recent example of what goes on at this institution for the criminally insane and sexually violent predators who are not safe to be released on the streets.

In 2008, Ferrari and fellow officer Rayne Stanton were savagely attacked by a patient they were escorting from the main courtyard for having tobacco — a patient who had previously attacked another patient with a 100-pound chair, opening a gash in the victim’s head. Injuries from her incident have dogged Ferrari for two years as her body rides a roller coaster of repair and lapse.

While this particular attack is extreme, it is not rare. Much more common attacks come from “gassing” — the term used when inmates throw bodily fluids such as blood, urine, feces and spit on custodial staff.

Last May, a particularly bad gassing incident took place when a resident threw a large cup of urine at an officer responding to a call for help from clinical staff. It was later discovered that the perpetrator had multiple communicable diseases, two of which were HIV and hepatitis C. The act was premeditated, as the individual had planned this attack by storing the fluid and waiting until a peace officer arrived. Unfortunately, the San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s Office decided not to prosecute the resident’s battery upon a peace officer “in the interest of justice.”

The officer now has to undergo biannual tests for the next seven years to make sure his assailant’s gassing attack has not infected him with a communicable disease. On top of that, he must take precautions to protect his family from potentially contracting a fatal disease as well.

Requiring prosecutors to charge those who gas peace officers with a felony would serve as a strong deterrent, stopping many inmates from committing these violent attacks.

Yet California laws currently only protect peace officers who guard wards at juvenile detention centers and inmates at jails and prisons. They don’t protect state hospital police.

Not having police at the 12 state hospitals run by the departments of Mental Health and Developmental Services under the same protective legal umbrella as their fellow officers at other institutions needs to change and the Legislature needs to act. All 120 assembly members and senators say they’re for law and order, here’s a simple way to prove it.

Many patients at the state mental hospitals come from state prisons, others are inmates that are being evaluated for mental health disorders and in total, 95 percent of residents at the state hospitals are staying in these facilities under some form of forensic commitments (a catch-all phrase meaning unfit for release in society).

Whatever you choose to call them (inmates, patients or residents), they are dangerous individuals who represent a threat to the public’s safety. Gassing is a learned behavior, usually in prisons and jails. Without repercussions for gassing attacks, these violent residents will continue to victimize the staff, visitors and other patients at state hospitals without fear of consequences.

State hospital police are trained in unique specialties given to no other law enforcement officials. In addition to keeping the peace within the hospitals, they also patrol vast and remote acreage of hospital property, and they respond to emergency calls in nearby communities.

Depriving them of the same legal protections as other peace officers is wrong and the legislature must take action to correct it. The California Statewide Law Enforcement Association, which represents hospital police, hopes that Assemblyman Sam Blakeslee will step forward and author legislation that will help protect the peace officers and staff at Atascadero State Hospital by requiring prosecutors to charge residents who gas them with a felony for this heinous crime.

Alan Barcelona is president of the California Statewide Law Enforcement Association.