ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – Throughout the pandemic, doctors and nurses have not only dealt with the dangers of COVID-19, but they’ve also faced more unruly and violent patients in hospitals than they’re used to seeing. So what happens to those cases in the court system?
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“She started swinging at me, punched me in my chest,” a nurse is heard on police lapel video from a case back in October. “She’s been doing this to a ton of healthcare providers,” the nurse added.
It’s a problem healthcare workers, police officers, and even the troubled patients struggle with. “I’m here at least twice a week, or twice a day,” said an Albuquerque Police officer, referring to the number of times he’s called to respond to calls at a local hospital.
In one case, hospital staff told police Ronnisha Cail started swinging and hitting a nurse as she was being escorted out. “I felt real angry, so um, I don’t know what happened after that,” Cail told the responding officer.
Cail’s case from a snowy night in October is just one example. Lovelace Women’s hospital staff called police after they said Cail started hitting nurses. “Have you taken anything? Any drugs or any alcohol?” The officer asked. Cail responded, “I drink alcohol every day. I need it to deal with stuff. Because I don’t want to be all out there cursing the cars out, walking into people all psycho.”
Cail told the officer she’s been homeless for four years. She admitted she’s manic and struggles with alcohol. Hospital staff said they’ve dealt with violence from her in the past, and decided to press charges. Cail was charged with battery on a health care worker that night, a fourth-degree felony in New Mexico.
Complex cases in the court system
Often cases like Cail’s present challenges in the court system. “We don’t want people to commit crime, but we understand that mental health and substance abuse disorder are a fact of life,” explained Sean Sullivan, Deputy District Attorney with the Second Judicial District Attorney’s Office. “But those two things don’t have to be the same.”
Sullivan is a supervisor in the General Crimes Division, which focuses on felony cases. Sullivan prosecutes cases like Cail’s.
“We need to be putting these people on a track to address those underlying issues so they get out of this crime cycle,” said Sullivan. “Instead, what we’re doing is being very formulaic in our approach and saying, ‘you’re incompetent, you’re not dangerous. We’ll see you tomorrow. And that is just simply not an effective approach,” he added.
Cail has a long criminal record for aggravated assault, attacking police officers, theft, and disorderly conduct. She’s out of jail, and her case is still pending.
Sarah Pepin is Cail’s attorney with the Public Defender’s Office. “Rare are my clients who don’t have a trauma history,” said Pepin. “And I would say non-existent are my clients who get charged with battery on a healthcare worker that don’t have some serious, significant trauma.”
For these reasons, Pepin and Sullivan agree solutions need to focus on treating substance abuse and mental health. Exactly how to make that happen gets complicated.
“He goes, ‘Well if you don’t give me medicine, I’m going to get homicidal and suicidal,'” a nurse practitioner from Presbyterian Kaseman Hospital in Albuquerque told police back in March. The nurse was referring to 31-year-old Tyler Shropshire, a patient hospital staff is very familiar with.
Shropshire also has a history of assault charges. When Presbyterian staff didn’t give him the medicine he demanded that night, the nurse told officers, “He stood up, punched me square in the face.”
Shropshire was charged with battery on a healthcare worker in March, then released from jail. A judge issued a warrant in June after he failed to show up to court. Nearly three months later, an APD officer arrested Shropshire on that warrant.
He’s out of jail again, under the watch of pretrial services. “Judges will frequently order people to pretrial supervision because that’s something that exists, right,” explained Pepin. “We utilize pretrial supervision to the fullest extent; perhaps beyond their fullest extent, because they’re currently short-staffed.”
Pepin told KRQE News 13 she’d like to see people pointed to more resources in the community to address substance abuse and mental health as soon as they’re released from jail. That’s assuming more resources are actually available in the community.
“If we had a warm-handoff and let’s say you know, a peer support worker, the judge could order you to meet with your peer support worker once a week while you’re on conditions of release,” explained Pepin. “That’s a thing. If those jobs existed.”
Peer support is offered in young adult court. Making sure things like meds, basic needs like a warm meal, coming up with long-term plans for housing, and counseling, are all things attorneys believe would help address the root of the problem.
“I’ve never had a client charged with this type of case that didn’t have an underlying substance abuse issue or mental health issue,” said Jennifer Barela, District Defender for the Law Office of the Public Defender, Second Judicial District.
When asked if there are enough resources in the community to tackle behavioral health and substance abuse issues, Barela replied, “I don’t think so. Not here in Bernalillo County. There are great organizations, but they need more funding and we need more of them,” she added.
“Part of the issue too is that Bernalillo is so big,” said Barela. “And we have so many people released from MDC every day, and a lot of people get lost in the shuffle,” she added.
In June, Anna Olivas was arrested for battery on a healthcare worker, after staff at Lovelace Downtown said she was brought in drunk and assaulted the paramedics. She’s currently out of jail, and her case is still pending. “Many times they’re released, they’re found not dangerous, and they’re put right back in the position to do that very same thing again,” said Sullivan.
Sullivan argues more of these cases should be court-ordered to the Behavioral Health Institute, or BHI, in Las Vegas, New Mexico. But that usually only happens after someone accused of a violent crime is found incompetent to stand trial. “That’s a very small subsection of what we’re talking about today, and it doesn’t treat the underlying issues,” said Barela.
Bernalillo County has a Criminal Justice Coordinating Council that meets monthly to try and tackle issues like this. “But it’s not an easy answer, it’s a very complex issue,” said Barela.
Assaulting a healthcare worker is a felony in New Mexico
Attorneys who represent those people with battery on a healthcare worker also point out the consequences of a felony conviction. “If I’m at Walmart, and I’m paying for my stuff, and I smack the cashier, that’s petty misdemeanor battery,” explained Pepin. “Maximum punishment, six months at MDC. If I do the same thing in the waiting room of a hospital, I smack a nurse, then I can get charged with a fourth-degree felony of battery on a healthcare worker, which carries a year-and-a-half in the Department of Corrections.”
“Not to say that you should go around picking up misdemeanors, but they’re different in terms of the life impact that they have,” said Pepin.
“It’s gonna be ten times harder for them to get back on their feet,” added Barela.
But what about the healthcare workers facing these attacks? Those who look at the felony charge as a zero-tolerance policy for violence in hospitals. “I absolutely appreciate that healthcare workers are in a hard position, and I don’t envy what they have to go through,” said Pepin. She said she’s like to see more training in de-escalation and trauma-informed care.
“All we want is this community to be safe,” said Sullivan. “We have a lot of empathy, of course, for every victim, but for healthcare workers in particular, given the state of things.”
Each of these cases is still pending in court, with no one really confident in the system these troubled patients are cycling through.
When asked what she’d like the public to know about her clients, Pepin responded, “Sometimes my clients are having a bad day, and sometimes they’re having a whole bad life. They’re community members, they’re people who need a lot of help. They need a lot of resources.”