On Thursday, October 23, 2014, employees at Napa State Hospital were joined by others in remembering the life and death of Napa State Hospital Psychiatric Technician Donna Gross. Gross was killed by a patient four years ago. Her death highlighted the extreme need for increased safety measures at state mental hospitals.
"Donna Gross went to work on October 23, 2010, performed her duties as a psych tech at a hospital where more than 90 percent of the patient population is now made up of violent criminals, and so very sadly, she never returned home," said California Statewide Law Enforcement Association (CSLEA) President Alan Barcelona. "CSLEA has pushed and will continue to push for safer measures at California's mental hospitals because our members who are hospital police officers, work inside these state mental hospitals which are now, based on the patient population, more like prisons."
Gross, 54, of Concord was strangled by patient Jess Massey, who is serving a 25 years-to-life prison sentence for the crime. Her death shined a light on the increasingly violent people who are criminally committed to state mental hospitals by the courts.
CSLEA, together with other labor associations whose members work at state hospitals, was successful in pressing state lawmakers for change. On September 28, 2014, Governor Jerry Brown signed four Assembly Bills aimed at increasing safety in California's five state hospitals. The following four bills become law January 1, 2015:
Assembly Bill 1340 - (Asemblymember Katcho Achadjian) will create enhanced treatment programs to house and assist those state hospital patients who exhibit highly aggressive and dangerous behaviors. The residences established at Atascadero, Coalinga, Napa and Patton State Hospitals will include intensive staffing, programs and treatments to help this high-risk population and will include upholding patients' rights through hearing and ombudsman processes.
Assembly Bill 1960 - (Assemblymember Henry Perea) will allow state hospital law enforcement and licensed mental health personnel to access and review the criminal history of patients, allowing mental health professionals to better gear programs and services toward a patient's behavioral need.
Assembly Bill 2186 - (Assemblymember Bonnie Lowenthal) will allow medication orders to follow state hospital patients wherever they go, creating more consistent care when patients are transferred.
Assembly Bill 2625 - (Assemblymember Katcho Achadjian) requires that, if the California Department of State Hospitals determines a patient referred to a state hospital is unlikely to regain sanity, reports must be submitted back to the courts and the courts are charged with swiftly finding appropriate mental health care and settings for that individual.
Despite the efforts and changes made by the Department of State Hospitals and the Legislature over the last four years, the work is not done. Currently, the Department of State Hospitals is experiencing a very difficult time in recruiting and retaining qualified Hospital Police Officers. This is in large part due to the inability to offer potential recruits a competitive law enforcement salary. Department of State Hospitals is at an extreme disadvantage as it is forced to compete with neighboring city, county, and state police agencies (most which can offer salaries 40-70% greater than that of a Hospital Police Officer) for potential police candidates.
When a State Hospital does hire a Hospital Police Officer, that Hospital Police Officer is immediately looking for other law enforcement opportunities that will pay market value. The high vacancy rates are leading to excessive overtime worked by the officers, and have even led some Hospitals to resort to leaving certain posts vacant.
"This is a health and safety hazard that the Department cannot risk. The Legislative changes are welcomed, but without a fully staffed and qualified law enforcement association, the potential for other tragic events at Department of State Hospitals still exists," said Barcelona.
Department of State Hospitals has requested the State to address Hospital Police Officer salary issues in order for the Hospitals to adequately staff the facilities to protect the patients, staff, and surrounding communities. A failure by the State to address Hospital Police Officer salary concerns will prevent Department of State Hospitals from adequately staffing its police forces, which will likely impact the health and safety of the hospital patients, staff, visitors, officers, and surrounding communities.
In addition to the officers being underpaid and their departments understaffed, CSLEA is concerned with another safety issue involving unarmed officers transporting violent patients into the community for appointments. Many of the patients they transport are forensic patients, meaning they were committed to the hospital by the criminal justice system and are accused of or have committed heinous crimes.
Some of the patients at Napa State Hospital have committed crimes such as murder, mass murder, rape, assault with deadly weapons, attempted murders, armed robberies and gang related crimes.
As Napa State Hospital employees remembered Donna Gross, they and their associations renewed their commitment to push for additional safety measures.