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Psychiatric hospital cited in incident with police officer's gun

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A state-run psychiatric hospital has been cited by the Department of Health for failing to provide a safe environment, following an April incident in which a patient on a locked unit grabbed a police officer's gun during an altercation.

Mental health advocates and law enforcement officials say the incident raises questions about the appropriate use of force during police interventions at psychiatric hospitals. A collaborative effort, led by the Minnesota Hospital Association, is underway to discuss statewide guidelines for intervening with violent patients.

"I think there is an effort to say, 'We need to step back and really look at what's the best approach and what are the best policies,'" said National Alliance on Mental Health Minnesota executive director Sue Abderholden. 

The police officer brought a gun and a Taser onto the unit on April 14, while responding to a call from staff at the 16-bed Community Behavioral Health Hospital in Annandale. 

A Minnesota Department of Health investigation found that hospital staff "did not assure a safe environment" when the officer entered the patient care area with his gun. 

The staff had called 911 when the adult male patient "became agitated and threatening and staff could not handle the situation," according to a Minnesota Department of Health statement released Wednesday.

The patient had tried to climb over a 12-foot fence during an outdoor recreation activity. He returned to the locked unit with staff and other patients, where he tried to break a window in the main day area with a chair and a coffee table

The police officer arrived and asked the patient to put down the chair, according to staff documentation obtained by the Department of Health. The officer then pulled out his Taser, but the patient grabbed a blanket and held it in front of himself to block the weapon. 

The officer tried unsuccessfully to snatch the blanket. The patient then ran toward the officer, who fired the Taser. A physical struggle between the patient and the officer ensued. 

During the altercation, the patient grabbed the officer's gun. The gun discharged, but the officer was able to remove it from the patient.

No one was injured, and the patient was taken to jail.

Three weeks before the incident, hospital officials had created a new policy requiring staff to ask police officers to leave all weapons outside of the patient care area.

In a statement released Wednesday, the Minnesota Department of Human Services said the agency "deeply regrets the incident and has taken all necessary corrective action." Since the investigation, the hospital has worked closely with law enforcement and other facilities "concerning weapons," and has improved staff training about personal safety and therapeutic interventions with patients, the agency said. 

Minneapolis Police Sgt. Steve Wickelgren, who leads mental health crisis trainings for police officers, says that officers can often diffuse similar incidents without using force. Officers can use "calming techniques," he said, including asking patients what they need and what the officer can do to help.

However, Wickelgren says that police officers should be able to bring weapons onto psychiatric units, and that the officer--not hospital staff--should be responsible if something goes wrong.

He said that it doesn't make sense for hospital staff to call the police if officers cannot bring their weapons. Hospital staff and security should handle most behavioral crises, he said, and only involve police when a stronger use of force might be needed. 

"If you don't want a weapon there, what do you want the police officer for?" he said.

Abderholden disagrees, and says that psychiatric units should be weapon-free. "I think it makes people feel like it's a crime to have a mental illness," she said.

But both Abderholden and Wickelgren say that hospital staff members need better guidance about when to call the police.  

"I think these are certainly hard discussions and hard situations," Abderholden said. "Nobody's perfect, but I think any time something like this happens, you have to step back and say, 'Okay, what could have been done differently?'"