The phone rings and the familiar voice on the other end of the phone tells me I need to call for assistance and get back to the room where our new “friend” is being held. I run back there and find that a man I had searched and restrained approximately fifteen minutes ago has already managed to pull a knife out of an orifice that (spoiler alert) doesn’t smell like roses, cut through his restraints, and threaten to kill everyone. But more on that later . . .
I’ve been employed as an armed security officer at an emergency trauma center in my state’s favorite ghetto for a few years now. I took the job after I didn’t get hired by my law enforcement agency of choice out of college. I can honestly say it’s been good experience, albeit stressful at times, but I don’t look forward to doing it much longer. What I want to share is my unique perspective on being put into a shoot/don’t shoot scenario, the politics and pitfalls of working contract armed security, as well as how the public mental health system affects us all. Through my time I’ve seen all this wrap together in a way that I believe is unique and should provoke some thought.
First, let’s talk about budgets. I love guns. Despite what some would say about me, guns are not the reason I do what I do, that passion is separate. Anyway, imagine the smile on my face when I show up for the first time at my new job for training and a brand spanking new gun box is put in front of me that has the red letters H&K on it. Then I read the words on the handle, “Pistol USP 9mm Tactical.” Anyone else getting a little too excited?
Now, imagine my face as I open the box and what I actually find occupying that space is a police trade-in Smith and Wesson 10-6 with wooden grips, covered in surface rust. “That’ll rub right off,” is what I’m told. I didn’t know what to say as I was then issued an awful snap holster, two of the worst speed loaders I have ever seen, and exactly 18 rounds of mixed .38 special ball that looked like it had been handed down for a decade or more. Only one had a copper jacket and I couldn’t read the head stamp because it was so dirty.
My issued pepper spray had expired three years ago and felt almost empty. When I asked where to pick up my vest, my new boss chuckled. We don’t wear them. I was warned if I wanted to buy my own that was fine, but I should know I would technically be in violation of policy, using unauthorized equipment. I still don’t wear one because now my budget won’t allow it. Unfortunately, this also meant that my GLOCK 17 and Safariland 6360 duty holster from my previous job were out of the question. It’s apparently better policy to make someone use what I would argue is antiquated and substandard equipment than to allow them to qualify with a more modern setup that they are used to. The argument I was given is that it’s a “department standard.” There are only seven of us total.
Back to the man with the knife. This is where things get cloudy. Now, can you imagine the fallout for shooting someone inside a hospital? A patient? Physically restraining combative patients and in general dealing with some of the rudest and most disgusting people you can imagine is a daily experience for me. This particular individual had been picked up by police for assaulting someone else on the street, searched, and then dropped off at the hospital because that’s what they do with people that have mental illnesses.
I am sad to report from at least my perspective they are rarely arrested. Once I even had a conversation with a patient who was there in the winter admittedly because he had been kicked out of every shelter and church in town for starting fights. He wandered over to my hospital and said he wanted to kill himself because he knew it would mean a place to stay the night and a sandwich or two. His advice to me was that I should quit my job and just “be crazy.” I sat there and listened to him brag about how he gets two government checks a month and a food card that he uses to buy liquor and cigarettes because of his disability. And the best partm according to him, is that you can do whatever you want and never get in any real trouble because you’re crazy.
Again, back to that knife. My unarmed backup arrives and we get to go play a game called “get the knife from the crazy person,” a game we’ve both played a few times. To a regular concealed carrier, crazy man with a knife saying he’s going to slice you up is pretty cut and dry. Getting away is your number one priority. If you can’t get away take the shot and call for help.
For us, there’s no avoiding it or getting away. This is where a lot of people will jump in and tell me to quit whining and do my job. Some even tell me that the police also have a duty to act, so why am I worried? Well remember the difference between me and the police is that the police are better equipped, have real authority, and are unionized and protected. I have been told by people above me on numerous occasions that in the event one of us were to have to use deadly force, even if it was clearly justified and saved lives, we would likely be fired immediately for public relations reasons.
Don’t get me wrong, the last thing I want is to use deadly force, but what I am getting at here is, if I feel like I can’t use it and screw up, I could get hurt. Also remember we’re always one snap holster away from a gun grab. So, despite the fact that he has a deadly weapon and is threatening lives, I don’t even consider drawing my pistol because I know what kind of a shitstorm would result from that action.
As soon as we were close enough we avoided his first swing and took control of his arm and broke the knife free. The struggle was quick and nobody ended up cut or with anything broken. My backup officer got spit on, but we were able to re-restrain the man safely with the help of the other staff once they knew the knife was out of play.
During the rest of his stay I would occasionally go see him to check the restraints were secure. Every time I did so he would tell me that he’d be out in a day and would be back “with his piece to pop pop, take care of me.” This is something I take seriously because aside from my interest in keeping myself alive and intact, as I said earlier there is no real retreat option for me. If someone were to come looking for me with a weapon they know where to find me and I am there 12 hours a day.
The real message here, aside from wanting others to learn from my experiences, is that we really do need to find better ways to deal with mental health. The recent shootings/stabbings in California involved someone who had a support network of family and therapists. There were large glaring signs pointing to something bad happening and still nobody did anything to prevent that tragedy.
About a week after the man with the knife left my hospital, he showed up again, this time with a gun in his waistband. We were fifteen yards or so from him, and if he had reached for it before the police arrived there would have been a bad outcome. He was arrested in possession of a firearm after threatening to shoot people outside of a hospital. I’m thinking, “Good, the police will finally be able to deal with this.” Think again.
We were good for about a month after that, then he’s back. I found out later that he had been again taken for mental evaluation and released. He shows up again, this time using a toy gun with the orange tip painted black, and threatened to kill a group of employees on their way out to the parking lot.
Since then I have attempted to use the freedom of information act to retrieve the police reports, which have been denied due to “pending court outcome.” This man I have been writing about is not our only regular with mental illness that causes problems for us and the community. If we won’t lock up or find a real solution for someone like this who has no oversight or family network and a history of threatening and violent behavior, how are we going to lock up or intervene in the cases of potential spree killers who often have no prior record?
I am very confident in saying at this point that there is not enough being done to treat people with serious mental illness. In the one example I shared here, thankfully nobody was killed or seriously hurt. But when you combine the quick turnaround of mental health cases with what is happening with the court system, it seems obvious that you are going to have problems. Being reactive is not going to help keep people safe but it seems as long as budgets are tight and nobody is stepping up to get creative that’s all we’re getting.
For those who are wondering I finally got new ammunition (still lead ball) and pepper spray, but only after one of my co-workers was injured detaining someone who was hearing voices and armed with a metal pipe. The police arrived finally and ended up tasing him to get the cuffs on. We were supposed to get tasers after that as well, but when it came time to buy, the budget wouldn’t allow it.
I can’t help but see the same theme all around me now. We shouldn’t be happy just doing something, what we need is to work together to do the right thing. As long as our politicians and representatives aren’t called out for throwing up the safety smokescreen, nothing with change. Get out and be loud, be proactive and don’t be afraid to improvise. If we are going to do something let’s make it count. Feeling safe is not as important as being safe, which is why simply blaming the guns and hoping for the best doesn’t work.