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Wednesday, June 16, 2021

‘It makes our jobs harder’: police in emergency rooms

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Two African American custodial workers at Indiana University Health Indianapolis were arrested last year by IU Health police on suspicion of a drug deal.

They were exchanging keys.

Court documents allege Lt. Robert Dycus, officer Michael Murphy and Sgt. Kenneth White confronted William Pendleton and Antione Banks on Jan. 10, 2020, after seeing image stills from the security cameras stationed throughout the hospital. Pendleton alleges Murphy searched him without cause and without consent.

Pendleton and Banks filed a lawsuit against IU Health and the three arresting police officers. According to court documents, Murphy allegedly told Pendleton and Banks that “[drug dealing] is what you people do.” Court documents say the two men believed “you people” to mean African Americans. Pendleton and Banks, who worked for a company contracted by IU Health, no longer work in the hospital, and neither could be reached for comment.

In a statement of defense, attorneys argue the officers had “reasonable suspicion to stop, detain and question the plaintiffs.”

A representative for IU Health said the officers were investigated and allowed to return to work.

According to IU Health public relations manager Jeff Swiatek, each IU hospital has its own police force. This is consistent with several hospitals throughout the state and is cause for concern for a group of anonymous health care workers, known as the Indianapolis Health Care Workers for Justice (IHCW4J). The group formed shortly after the 2020 civil rights protests. The goal of the group — whose roughly 20 members remain anonymous to protect their employment — is to bring attention to systemic racism in the health care field.

Their biggest cause to date? A push to get police officers out of emergency rooms.

AJ, a staff member of several local hospitals and spokesperson for IHCW4J, said police presence in hospitals scares patients — predominately Black and homeless patients — from seeking care. AJ’s full name was withheld to protect his employment.
“Having cops in emergency rooms is a major manifestation of the systemic racism that Black and marginalized folks experience,” AJ said. “Cops kill 1,000 people a year. And it’s not just that people are being killed; Black scholars suggest that violent policing targeting Black folks is a cause of bad health, like high blood pressure. … If the violent policing regime is a reason for poor health in Black folks, then inviting them into health care spaces is a bad idea.”

Members of IHCW4J say it isn’t uncommon for police in emergency rooms to look up patients to check for outstanding warrants, citing a “very close” relationship between emergency room doctors and police. While research on policing in hospitals is limited, there are patients who delay medical care to avoid being arrested. For example, AJ had one patient with outstanding warrants who waited for an illness to become life threatening before seeking care.

“It makes our jobs much harder when people have advanced diseases when they show up,” AJ said. “… We’re told to counsel our patients to try to change mindsets, but in my mind, it’s often a justifiable decision for patients to not want to go to the hospital. Especially for Black, homeless and other criminalized folks. I think a lot of doctors and hospitals have good intentions, but good intentions aren’t enough. You have to show it, and I think one way to show it would be to get cops out of hospitals.”

However, Lee Blue, chief nursing officer, and Dr. Clark Simons, chief of surgical services at Eskenazi Health, said hospital staff don’t investigate patients and are under no obligation to inform hospital police if a patient has an outstanding warrant.

“When patients come to us, we are not aware that there is a warrant until after they’ve been admitted, managed and treated,” Simons said. “[A warrant] does not make a difference for us. We work with the officers under some circumstances, and they allow us to administer care first and then do whatever is needed after we have managed to make sure the patient is safe.”

While hospital staff say patient care is the priority, a police presence in the hospital, especially the emergency room, makes them feel safe. Further, Blue said she would have difficulty finding nurses to work if police were not present in the hospital.

“Our security are trained sheriffs and are a part of our team,” Blue said. “They do a lot of other things besides policing. They are there to help guide people, support people, and I feel very blessed to have that support in our hospital. I truly believe that if we did not have that kind of support, I would have a hard time finding nursing staff that would want to work.”

IHCW4J isn’t opposed to having security in hospitals but said they shouldn’t be armed police officers. Indiana statute gives hospital police the same authority as city officers, but it does not require the former to report crime data and details on when officers use force.

While IHCW4J has spoken out on several issues — including the December 2020 death of Dr. Susan Moore — AJ said their main goal right now is to get police out of emergency rooms. While he admits it’s a lofty goal, he said it should be a priority for any health care worker wanting to best serve their patients.

“We could be leaders in combating systemic racism, but it’s going to take more than diversity, equity and inclusion classes,” AJ said. “It’s making sure that Black people aren’t going to get mauled by cops in the emergency room.”

Contact staff writer Breanna Cooper at 317-762-7848. Follow her on Twitter @BreannaNCooper.

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