There are days when security officers on Stephen Hollowell’s team at Northeast Georgia Health System are hit, scratched, kicked, punched and spat on.
And there are days that leave both the security team and the frontline nursing staff mentally and physically exhausted from the sheer volume of patients.
“We do rise above it because we are all professionals,” said Hollowell, the health system’s director of security and emergency preparedness. “The next day, you get up, you put your uniform on and you go out there and you do it all again.”
The Times spoke with Hollowell Jan. 20 regarding a recent standoff with law enforcement outside Gainesville’s Northeast Georgia Medical Center and the heightened emotions felt by both patients and visitors during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Hollowell’s background in security and law enforcement goes back more than 40 years, having worked as a detective sergeant for Scotland Yard, which is the headquarters of the London Metropolitan Police . He came to the U.S. 30 years ago and has worked in security primarily in health care settings.
Hollowell said the incidents with combative patients “certainly have increased.”
“There’s no doubt about it,” Hollowell said. “There has been a spike. (But) the vast majority are handled without any use of force whatsoever.”
Saturday morning standoff
The hospital’s security team was alerted early Jan. 16 about a potentially armed man outside of the hospital.
Hollowell said the security staff went out to look for the person and then immediately called law enforcement while also initiating lockdown procedures. A code phrase is sent out to alert staff of a potential armed threat and to stay in place while the security team members station themselves at the major entrances.
“Fortunately, because it happened in the early hours of the morning, there are only very few entrances that are left open,” Hollowell said.
Lt. Kevin Holbrook said Gainesville Police were dispatched around 3 a.m. that Saturday.
“It was reported the individual had been taken to the hospital for a mental evaluation, at which point he fled with a gun,” Holbrook wrote in an email.
Holbrook said they found the man hiding outside of an unoccupied building. Officers attempted to peacefully resolve the situation while also “providing safety and security to all parties on campus of the hospital.”
After a roughly 75-minute standoff, Jason Hall, 36, of Roswell, was arrested. He was turned over to Roswell Police, who had identified him as a murder suspect from a fatal shooting, before being transported to the Fulton County Jail.
Incidents with patients and staff
According to daily incident bulletins provided by Gainesville Police, there have been at least four reports listing the hospital’s Spring Street address for incidents involving disorderly conduct, terroristic threats, criminal damage to property or assault.
One Aug. 27 incident involved a man coming to the hospital to visit a family member.
“Due to the hospital restrictions, the arrested (man) was not allowed past a certain area,” Gainesville Police Cpl. Jessica Van wrote in an email. “At this time, he threatened to harm a staff member.”
Another incident Nov. 3 involved a man brought to Gainesville who wanted help. Police did not clarify what kind of help was requested.
Van said the man struck an assisting security officer.
“Then (the man) allegedly reached next to him and grabbed a podium, smashing it to the ground,” Van wrote in an email. “He allegedly had a strong odor of alcohol coming from him.”
The Times reached out to Gainesville Police to discuss what, if any, changes have been made to assist in policing around the hospital since the pandemic began.
Holbrook said the department would defer all questions to the health system and its officials.
“As with all calls for service, we will respond and provide the appropriate and necessary services,” Holbrook wrote in an email. “I am not aware of any additional call volume or changes in service due to the pandemic.”
Braselton Police Chief Terry Esco said some of his department’s top brass met with the hospital’s security team in recent weeks, though Esco was not able to attend. Esco said the facility is technically in Hall County, and while outside of his department’s jurisdiction, officers will provide mutual aid if needed.
Hollowell said the emergency department and behavioral health account for at least 90% of the incidents where security has intervened. The security director said these incidents could be because of mental health distress or substance use.
“Many times, these individuals are already at a heightened state and tend to become combative and on several occasions can become quite violent,” Hollowell said. “Naturally, that is why the security department is there. They’re trained for this. They’re trained not only to de-escalate, but they’re trained to take control of the patients in the best way,”
Due to the COVID-19 outbreak, visitation has often been restricted.
“But many times, people just don’t want to hear that, that they can’t go back despite explanations,” Hollowell said. “Sometimes they act out verbally and sometimes they act out physically.”
Both the security team and the frontline clinical staff go through deescalation training, which has been increased to two times per year.
Parrish said in a statement that the Jan. 16 incident “shows that utilizing safety concepts to properly apply de-escalation methods and techniques in critical incidents is paramount.”
“Although not always the case, when safe to do so and time allows, the use of properly applied de-escalation and crisis intervention training will and can save lives,” Parrish said in a statement. “This was a very tense and dangerous situation, to which we are very fortunate ended with a peaceful resolution.”