A controversial bill sponsored by Rep. Jonathan Jordan (R-Ashe, Watauga) to expand the powers of Ashe Memorial Hospital’s Department of Public Safety has, after extensive revision, unanimously passed the House and is now making its way through the Senate.
“It’s been complicated,” Jordan said. “But we’ve fixed the problem.”
Filed April 3, with Jordan as sole sponsor, House Bill 533 was meant to address AMH’s security issues with involuntary commitments, individuals with symptoms of mental illness who are court-ordered into treatment. Under current law, Jordan said, hospital police are limited in what they can do to restrain or detain involuntary commitments.
Hospital police are bound by civil liability, he said. If involuntary commitments are combative or if they flee, police hands are legally tied in using force or in pursuit outside hospital walls.
Because of these limitations, Ashe County Sheriff’s deputies and other local law enforcement officers spend hundreds of man hours every year detaining and transporting involuntary commitments.
“It was a local bill,” he said. “I was trying to fix the problem in my area…I didn’t want all the blow back of a statewide bill.”
In its first draft, the bill was entitled “an act to to expand the arrest and law enforcement authority of hospital police officers in Ashe County.” It did just that, permitting DPS to enter into mutual aid agreements with other local law enforcement, allowing county-wide jurisdiction.
“It got a lot of push-back” Jordan said, with the Attorney General, and the UNC School of Government taking issue with the bill.
In April, The N.C. Sheriffs’ Association voted to oppose HB 533 during their annual legislative meeting in Raleigh, with Ashe County Sheriff James Williams also opposed to expanded police powers at AMH.
Facing local and statewide opposition, the bill was amended on the House floor with changes to existing mental health statutes under G.S. 122-C, Jordan said.
The law is ambiguous on use of force by hospital police, and uses vague terms like “24-hour facility” in reference to emergency rooms and hospital facilities that are their jurisdiction, he said.
House Bill 533 gives AMH police the power to “use appropriate and reasonable force and means” to keep involuntary commitments inside hospital facilities, and to give “continuous and immediate pursuit” when they flee.
“The bill now has the support of the Sheriff’s Association, the Police Chief’s Association, the Hospital Association, and the (AMH) police chief and (CEO),” Jordan said.
The Ashe-County-only legislation was also favored by two other counties, Wilkes and Cumberland, where it will also apply if signed into law, he said.
“I think other counties are going to see this as a solution,” he said. “It will probably become a statewide law next session.”
“I don’t want our local law enforcement sitting there at the hospital, I want them out patrolling,” he said. “That’s what this bill does.”