Cottage representatives say the facility’s tight security makes everyone in the hospital — including
medical staff — feel at ease.
Did Cottage Hospital Guards Get Too Tough?
Thursday, March 17, 2011
For more than a century, Cottage Hospital has been Santa Barbara’s beacon of health and hope, a place where babies are born, the sick are tended, and the injured are mended. Over the course of any given day, countless medical miracles are performed within its walls that offer relief to patients and their loved ones, and the hospital’s impressive, ever-expanding campus is a testament to the place it holds in the hearts of many.
Because violence at medical facilities across the country is on the rise, hospitals have been forced to constantly reexamine and improve their safeguards. Cottage and its security squad deal with hundreds of incidents every year during which people — often in the midst of the most dramatic, anxiety-filled moments of their lives — let their emotions get the best of them. The guards’ job is a dangerous one, and they’re tasked with managing fast-paced, unpredictable situations with calm heads and cool demeanors.
Ronald Werft, president and CEO of Cottage Health System, said the hospital has the responsibility to provide a secure environment, which it does with evolving protocols that were ratcheted up after a woman was able to steal a newborn infant from the maternity ward in February 2009. She was apprehended a few hours later and the baby safely returned. “It’s an obligation we take very seriously,” Werft said, noting that not only do patients and visitors appreciate the assurance, but staff also take solace in knowing they’re always protected.
However, there have been questions raised about security methods. During the past five years, security staff members have been accused of using overly aggressive techniques — choke holds, pepper spray, and attack dogs — to deal with visitors and patients who step out of line, injuring them in the process. In interviews with attorneys and visitors, The Independent heard a number of anecdotal complaints, but this story will focus only on four cases that have been officially documented, either by civil lawsuits or police reports. One case is headed to civil trial next month.
Nearly everyone interviewed for this article — from law enforcement personnel to attorneys to the complainants themselves — said security guards were correct to initially engage the people in question. But events escalated to the point that the hospital visitors felt they were treated violently. Though the police, following the guards’ accounts, charged the visitors with crimes, in the end, the District Attorney’s Office dropped or reduced all charges because of limited time and resources.
The Independent recently viewed security footage of a three-on-one takedown of a man who got into an argument with officers. We then compared it to the narratives given by the guards to police, and we believe the video and police report tell two different stories. Nevertheless, this case has yet to be formally filed. Not only is the would-be plaintiff having a hard time finding a lawyer to take on Cottage, but he’s also deterred by the impact a lengthy and expensive trial would have on his family and business.
During interviews, multiple high-profile lawyers around town admitted they’re afraid to represent clients who’ve had messy dealings with guards and nervous about taking on a seemingly insurmountable foe like Cottage, arguably the largest, wealthiest, most influential institution in Santa Barbara. They also said that they’re reticent about getting on the bad side of the administration of the only hospital in town and then being forced to go there for treatment.
“No one screws with Cottage,” said one attorney, who wished to remain anonymous. “Especially with this kind of thing. That’s the problem with having a monopoly.”
By Paul Wellman
In Cottage’s Defense
Guards monitor 4,000 people moving in and out of the hospital every day and are called to an average of six to seven incidents a week, sometimes ushering people off the property, sometimes detaining them until police arrive to make an arrest. Considering the numbers, the overwhelming majority of security force responses at Cottage are handled smoothly and professionally. The Santa Barbara Police Department makes an average of 2.6 trips to the facility every day to document crime victims, keeps tabs on suspects who need medical care, and assists Cottage guards with their own duties. “There are a lot of difficult situations over there,” said police spokesperson Lt. Paul McCaffrey. “They get people who are under the influence of a lot of things, including anxiety, fear, and pain … We’ve never had any problems with [the guards].”
Hospital spokesperson Janet O’Neill said there are 19 officers on staff spread throughout Cottage Health System’s campuses, with four guards patrolling the Santa Barbara grounds at all times: two in the Emergency Room, where things go bad most often, and two patrolling the rest of the property. Cottage hires guards as employees, as opposed to contracting with a private security agency. A few are canine handlers. “The dogs have made quite a bit of a difference. They instill a bit of discipline,” said O’Neill in reference to increasing problems with the mentally ill and what she called a “spike in gang violence.”
After Leianna Arzate — seen on the right in this frame from the security footage — kidnapped a newborn baby in 2009, Cottage’s security measures were significantly increased (i.e., more guards, more cameras, and fewer unlocked doors). Arzate was later arrested and the infant safely returned.
Two incidents come to mind that underscore the medical community’s concerns: In the wake of the March 2007 gang brawl in front of Saks Fifth Avenue that left a 15-year-old dead, family members of Eastsiders and Westsiders nearly got into their own fight at Cottage Hospital when victims on both sides of the brawl were taken there for treatment. And in April 2009, police were called to the Franklin Center private clinic after 20 suspected Eastside gang members — who heard Westsiders were being treated inside — surrounded the building and began flashing gang signs through the windows. Clinic personnel had closed the blinds and locked all the doors to the facility. S.B. police officers were able to disperse the crowd, but not before making four arrests and escorting the Westsiders to their cars. “The community should understand that security is there for their benefit,” O’Neill said.
O’Neill wouldn’t speak on any of the legal matters, saying only that she was “sorry” about them, and Cottage’s attorneys didn’t answer requests for comment. Calls made to the security office went unreturned. Court documents for the past and pending cases reveal that the hospital has categorically denied any wrongdoing. What follow are four incidents that have been in dispute.
Failure to Communicate
Not long after Beatrice Damashek brought her ailing father to Cottage Hospital, she found herself handcuffed in the parking lot with her shirt ripped open and breasts exposed, according to her complaint. She wound up suing the hospital for personal injury and emotional distress, naming security guards Luis Ramirez and Steve Sherwin as the two officers who assaulted her. Right before the case went to trial in 2009, Damashek settled with the hospital out of court for an undisclosed sum.
But her attorney, Stephen K. Dunkle of Sanger & Swysen, said, “There is definitely a pattern of security guards escalating situations into violence when police should be called earlier.”
Damashek, a legally deaf woman in her fifties, checked her father into Cottage’s emergency room on December 4, 2006, then left to get food and coffee. Upon her return, she was buzzed back in, but learned her father was about to receive an MRI, which can take up to an hour. She left again, this time to buy snacks from the lobby gift shop to give to hospital staff helping her father. But, in returning to the ER, the new admissions nurse refused to let her in, telling her to wait in the ER waiting room. Damashek protested, and security was called. The entire sequence of events was captured on video:
According to Dunkle’s description in the lawsuit, guard Sherwin showed up with a German shepherd and told Damashek to leave, which she did. Sherwin then stood to block the entrance and told her to leave the hospital property. She tried explaining that she couldn’t understand him, that her father was inside and she had driven him there, but Sherwin persisted, eventually shoving her backward a number of times. She continued to argue, and Sherwin then tackled her into the parking lot. He was then joined by Ramirez. The two jumped on her back while she was facedown and proceeded to hit and kick her, the lawsuit alleges. During the scuffle, her shirt and bra were reportedly torn as she was placed in handcuffs. Only when police officers arrived was she allowed off the ground and her chest covered.
In their official statement to police, Sherwin and Ramirez said Damashek originally refused to leave the waiting room. Sherwin also said that he “gently” put his hand on Damashek’s shoulder to get her to step off the property, and claimed she swung at him before he took her to the ground. “The video demonstrates that none of this actually occurred,” the complaint reads.
Both guards are still at Cottage; Ramirez is now also a supervisor and canine handler.
David Cohen thought he was taking his last breaths when he was choked for more than two minutes by Cottage security. “I thought how ironic it was that I was going to die on the floor of a hospital,” he said, tearing up in a recent interview.
On May 8, 2009, Cohen walked into Cottage, failing to check in at the front door and ignoring guard Luis Ramirez, who tried to get his attention. The facility was in “lockdown” because of the raging Jesusita Fire, but Cohen said he didn’t see any signs posted, and admitted he was in the wrong for disregarding the officer. The entire episode was captured by security cameras, the footage of which was obtained by The Independent:
Cohen was chased down by Ramirez, who was joined by two other guards, and surrounded at the far end of the lobby. After a few heated exchanges between Cohen and Ramirez (Cohen flipped Ramirez off at one point), Ramirez pointed toward the door and demanded that Cohen leave. After fumbling with his wallet to get his ID, Cohen took a step in the exit’s direction but was tackled from behind by a guard and choked with a baton. He was pepper-sprayed and put in handcuffs while two guards put their full weight on him. Cohen admitted that he was repeatedly told to stop resisting while his windpipe was crushed and his head smashed into the ground, but said that his legs and body were twitching involuntarily because he was starting to lose consciousness.
In his statement to the police, Ramirez said the other guard “placed his hands on Cohen’s shoulders” as he was about to handcuff him; one of the other guards, however, told police that it was he who put Cohen in a choke hold. All three guards also alleged that Cohen was tackled because they feared for their safety, as he had rushed at them in a fighting stance, with his chest puffed out and fists clenched. That aggression is not noticeable in the video.
When police arrived to find Cohen restrained and propped against the wall, they reportedly asked him if he had been attacked by the dog because his injuries were so severe, and he was soon sent to the ER for treatment. The police report notes he had a “large swollen area on the left side of his forehead, red discoloration under his chin, discolored swollen nose, red bloodshot eyes, and abrasions on his elbows and back,” and Cohen later learned he had a broken rib, sprained ankle, and injured back.
The security squad recommended that he be charged with disturbing the peace, resisting arrest, and trespassing. He was only charged with disturbing the peace for using offensive language, which was later dismissed. Before that, though, Cohen said he spent $2,500 on legal consultation. His $30,000 in medical bills were covered by insurance.
Though he considered filing a $300,000 lawsuit for personal injury and emotional distress, the married father of young kids became quickly discouraged after attorneys warned him he’d have to put a bunch of money upfront and go through years of litigation. Cohen said he simply didn’t have the time or energy to go through all that because he’s trying to run a business and raise a family. He was also told that his case was not cut-and-dry, as he provoked the guards with colorful language and obscene gestures. Juries are inherently inclined to side with a hospital, one lawyer explained, and it takes a lot of convincing evidence to overcome that bias and turn the jury against it. Cohen, though, said he’s keeping his options open.
“I want to prevent others from enduring what I endured,” Cohen said. “I’d rather see that happen than go through court. I know [the guards] deal with a lot, but something needs to change … The cases can’t be linked in court, but they can be linked in the court of public opinion.”