As the three-year anniversary of the killing of psychiatric technician Donna Gross at the hands of a patient approaches, the number of violent incidents at Napa State Hospital has decreased, the hospital director told state legislators at a forum Wednesday.
But union representatives and others argued that more has to be done to reduce violence at the facility.
More than 90 local and state officials, Department of State Hospital employees, patient advocates and others attended the 2 1/2 hour meeting at Napa Valley College’s Little Theater, hosted by State Assemblywoman Mariko Yamada, D-Davis.
A social worker by training, Yamada wondered whether state hospitals, which are treating greater number of psychiatric patients who have committed crimes, will be turned into correctional facilities like the California Department of Corrections’ medical facility in Vacaville.
“I think it’s going to be an interesting struggle,” Yamada said after Napa State Director Dolly Matteucci testified about a series of security measures implemented over the past three years.
“I think we’re going to have to be really careful in balancing those needs,” said Yamada , who was joined by Assemblyman Marc Levine, D-San Rafael, a fellow member of the State Assembly Select Committee on State Hospital and Developmental Center Safety.
Donna Gross’ “tragic loss” had been the catalyst for change, Matteucci told the legislators. The hospital has made significant safety progress, including installing a new wireless alarm system, creating new programs for patients, filling staff vacancies and opening a police substation inside the secured treatment area where patients committed through the criminal courts are housed.
Having officers inside the secured treatment area has led to “significantly” faster response to incidents there, she said.
“We are happy to report that we are seeing a continuing downward trend of major acts of physical aggression at Napa State Hospital,” Matteucci said.
There were 82 violent incidents by patients on staff between October 2012 and September 2013, Matteucci said — or 49 fewer than during the same time period three years earlier. Patient-on-patient violence is also down, she reported.
A federal judge recently ordered the end of federal oversight of the facility after seven years. Matteucci noted.
Union leaders attributed the downward trend in part to better communication between various parties, including management and teams of psychiatric technicians who patrol the grounds.
Yet, more needs to be done as the hospital admits increasingly sophisticated patients, including gang members, they said. The personal alarms have systemic glitches that have to be resolved, they said. And patient-to-staff ratios remain inadequate.
The Legislature is considering a bills to allow the construction of segregated units for the more violent offenders. A bill allowing hospital police officers to carry guns when they escort patients outside the secured treatment area was vetoed by the governor.
Napa State Police Officer Karl Johnson, speaking on behalf of the California Statewide Law Enforcement Association and Police Association of California, said the police department formed a special unit in June to deal with gang members admitted at Napa State Hospital.
He also called for more training and urged that police officers be allowed to carry firearms outside the secured treatment areas. Officers now are not properly equipped to deal with dangerous patients at the hospital and during transport, endangering staff, patients and the community, he told the committee.
Police union officials have noted patients are brought to Napa State Hospitals by armed officers and the state already provides firearms to correctional officers at Patton and Coalinga state hospitals.
However, the mothers of two patients committed to Napa State told the state officials they oppose the idea of arming peace officers.
“I believe that arming Napa State Hospital officers with guns is a terrible idea,” said Gail Shuster of San Francisco, whose son suffers from schizophrenia. Her son has been transported to doctors appointments without incident, she said.
“My son is no threat to the community. He is only a threat to himself,” Shuster said.
June Forbes, the mother of a 51-year-old man, also opposed arming the police officers at Napa State. All too often officers shoot mentally illl people who are no threat to anyone, she said. “I am just terrified at the idea of hospital security carrying firearms.”
Other union representatives, including Zach Hatton, chief steward for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, and Linda Monahan, president of the Napa chapter of the California Association of Psychiatric Technicians, urged increasing staffing levels and adoption of the bill that would allow the construction of separate units to house the more violent individuals.
Over the years, staff caseloads have increased as have the number of violent patients and paperwork demands. Yet staffing levels have remained the same, they said.
“The population that we have admitted today is different from the population of 20 years ago,” Monahan said. “It’s just different.”
Local officials spoke as well, including Napa County Supervisor Keith Caldwell, who mentioned the collaboration between the county and state officials on such projects as the extension of a recycled water pipeline to Coombsville through hospital grounds and David Lovell, criminal justice analyst for Napa County.
“We understand very clearly that maintaining a safe facility is a prerequisite for effective treatment,” Lovell told the committee.
Napa State hospital patients accused of crimes and awaiting trial in Napa County Superior Court should not be housed at the local jail, he said. Expecting the local jail to provide the psychiatric care the patients need is not realistic. It’s just as absurd as expecting the county to construct an intensive care unit for cardiac patients, he said.
“These are hospitalized patients. They are there for a reason. They require a hospital-level of care. This is a level of care that a jail, particularly a small jail, simply cannot provide,” he told the committee.
Transferring mentally ill patients from Napa State Hospital to the jail is damaging to them and others, Lovell said.
He noted in about 60 percent of the cases, the patient received no additional sentence, often because no complaint was filed or they were referred for competency assessments.
In a paper submitted to the committee, Lovell gave examples of patients housed at the Napa County jail who have either injured themselves or assaulted staff, including a patient who set himself on fire in 2006 in a suicide attempt.
“These are people who are already very damaged by virtue of their mental illness,” he said. “These are people whom we have an obligation not to damage any further.”
The date of the fire at the Napa County jail has been corrected since first posting.