State hospital staff in Pueblo fear for safety with new policing plan

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Employees are concerned about a new plan that will transition law enforcement officers at the Colorado Mental Health Institute at Pueblo into clinical specialist roles.

About 300 Colorado Mental Heath Institute at Pueblo employees expressed safety concerns through a petition presented to state executives ahead of a plan to transition uniformed correctional officers to clinical safety specialist roles.

When officials announced the plan late last year, it was described as a “long overdue change,” for dealing with mental health patients in crisis at the state hospital. Instead of uniformed correctional officers, clinical safety specialists will work to de-escalate incidents in a nonconfrontational approach to “help create a more therapeutic environment for patients while narrowing the scope of police presence to investigations and transport,” said Dr. Robert Werthwein, director of the Colorado Department of Human Services which oversees the state hospital.

Werthwein said the move of 45 correctional officers to the clinical safety specialist role is required by “a policy shift for how we engage our patients from a non-law enforcement perspective. It is expected of us from regulatory agencies that oversee us.”

The change was due to start this week, however that has been pushed off to the end of the month, Werthwein said, to allow staff time for training.

The delay is one of several requests staff made in the petition, said Hilary Glasgow, executive director of Colorado Workers for Innovative and New Solutions, known as Colorado WINS, the union that represents the staff.

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“The employees there have real concerns about safety. They did run a petition which was signed by around 320 employees,” Glasgow said.

Glasgow said the people who work on the units are best equipped to flag concerns for administration. One nurse, who asked not to be named, said officials are making changes that don’t affect them.

“They don’t work the floor, we work the floor. And unit to unit there are different safety concerns,” the nurse said.

“The management is trying to tell us that it bothers the patients to see uniforms. In a way I can understand that, however, these are forensic patients.

“They have to deal with uniforms. A lot of them come from the jails and they have (criminal) charges.

“When we have a duress (call) on a unit, you have to remember nursing staff is predominately female. If we have a patient that is like 6-foot-3 or 6-foot-4 we are not going to be able to take him down easily if we need to.

“We need officers there. The ward officers and usually the hospital police respond to help us and they have been able to de-escalate the patients.

“They are in uniform. They get a different respect and are able to de-escalate because they are not around the patients all the time,” the nurse added.

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With clinical safety specialists no longer operating under the auspices of security, they will be wearing green polo shirts, Werthwein said. The shirts will clearly identify the safety specialists on the unit, “so that is one of the requests (in the petition) we were able to say, ‘Yeah, we agree,’” he said.

“Well this (green shirt) is not going to signify to the patients who they are. They are not going to be able to have the same influence that they’ve been having,” the nurse said.

She said she fears the change will impact already low staffing issues among nurses at the state hospital.

Employees also had concerns about pay and the petition asked the state to consider higher “differential pay” for the clinical safety specialists that would match nurses’ pay.

“Nurses across the industry as a whole tend to get higher pay because we are all competing for nurses. There also was a request to fill the vacant police officer positions, but since we reduced their role, there is not a need for as many officers,” Werthwein said.

The police officer vacancies have been used to, “balance our budget so we don’t have to lay anybody off,” Werthwein said.

But the nurse said she feels, “What that tells me is that they are willing to sacrifice staff for budget.”

“We’ve had a lot of duresses. We had two staff seriously hurt on one unit that did not have a ward officer on that unit at all. One of them needed surgery,” the nurse said.

“We never want to see our staff assaulted, but unfortunately it does happen. Each incident is reviewed thoroughly and reported to a quality assurance team,” Werthwein said.

“The real problem is management just does not hear us — they don’t hear our concerns,” the nurse said.

“It’s a difficult transition but we also have to be in line with what best practices are today in these settings. I am confident if we collectively work together we will get there,” Werthwein said.

Chieftain reporter Tracy Harmon covers business and Fremont County news. She can be reached by email at tharmon@chieftain.com or via Twitter at twitter.com/tracywumps.