The victim of a bizarre beating at Mission Hospitals remained in fair condition Tuesday in a case that raises questions about why police drove his assailant to the hospital and then left him unattended.
The case also points to a troubling lack of treatment resources for the mentally ill.
Johnny West, 57, suffered a fractured skull, broken nose and bruising of the brain in the attack, which happened in the emergency room waiting area of the St. Joseph campus of Mission. West works for United Parcel Service.
Rutherfordton resident Shawn Michael Pettie, 30, has been charged with assault inflicting serious injury and ethnic intimidation, according to the Asheville Police Department. He made an obscene gesture at West, who is African-American, before attacking him without provocation, according to witnesses.
Mission listed West in fair condition Tuesday, which means his vital signs are stable and within normal limits but he is acutely ill.
“He is conscious, and he has spoken to me,” said West’s wife, Sharon West, adding that her husband remained in Mission’s neuro-trauma intensive care unit. “We know what happened, we just don’t know why. It’s awkward, and it’s bizarre.”
Sharon West, a registered nurse who works at Mission Hospitals, also writes a column for the Citizen-Times. She said she hasn’t had a chance to think about police or hospital policies and protocols.
Officer drove Pettie to hospital
Asheville Police Chief Bill Hogan said the officer who took Pettie to the hospital, Rosa Perez-Schupp, was doing what officers do routinely. She responded to a call on North Lexington Avenue downtown early Monday, and a witness told her Pettie had been assaulted.
Pettie did not appear to be injured, so Perez-Schupp called in and got permission from a supervisor to transport the man to Mission.
“We give officers a reasonable level of discretion in dealing with these kinds of situations,” Hogan said. “If it’s not a serious injury or illness, it’s not unusual for us to transport someone to the hospital. We are a full-service department.”
Hogan said officers don’t want to become “a taxi service,” but they do give rides daily to people in need — those stranded by a car accident or a homeless person in need of a ride to a shelter on a cold night, for example.
Hogan said officers had dealt with Pettie before and noted in a subject file he had exhibited signs of mental illness, but Perez-Schupp didn’t find that out until after the assault. Pettie was convicted in 1998 of being intoxicated and disruptive and resisting a public officer, both misdemeanors, but he has no other criminal record.
Perez-Schupp dropped Pettie off at St. Joseph’s Emergency Room waiting area and was standing outside when the assault took place. She and Mission security guards subdued Pettie quickly.
Hogan said the officer did not accompany Pettie inside the emergency room or alert hospital staff because he had not shown any signs of aggression or instability.
‘Not in a right state of mind’
The Rev. Dedrick Clark, who was with the Wests that night in the emergency room, said Pettie seemed highly agitated. The Wests had come to the hospital to visit a young woman who was being treated, and Pettie, without provocation, made an obscene gesture at them, Clark said.
“He appeared to me to be some kind of nervous or mad,” Clark said. “He was definitely not in a right state of mind, I can tell you that.”
Pettie ran toward West, kicked him in the face and started punching him, Clark said. After Clark yelled at him, Pettie “froze in his tracks and backed up with his hands up,” Clark said. “And the police got him.”
Law enforcement procedures expert William T. Gaut of Naples, Fla., questions the decision to take civilians to the hospital. A former police officer and detective division commander who testifies as an expert in police matters in state and federal court, Gaut says the Asheville Police Department may have deviated from typical police procedures.
“The deviation from the norm is putting a person in the police car and taking them to the hospital,” Gaut said. “Generally speaking, what the officer is trained to do is call for medical support.”
Someone could be more seriously ill or injured than it appears and could die or suffer a permanent injury, Gaut said. Also, paramedics are trained to evaluate injuries and mental health.
“You don’t just grab him up, put him in a police car and drop him off at the hospital,” Gaut said.
Mental illness care lacking
Merrell Gregory, a spokeswoman for 716-bed Mission Hospitals, said the hospital’s security guards responded quickly to the assault. Mission has 52 security officers on staff, four team leaders and one supervisor.
They receive training in the use of pepper foam, expandable batons, handcuffs and unarmed self-defense, but they do not carry firearms.
Gregory said hospital officials “feel terrible this happened,” but she also noted the assault highlights the lack of care available for the mentally ill.
Allison Breedlove, interim executive director of the Governor’s Advocacy Council for Persons with Disabilities in Raleigh, said the statewide mental health reform enacted four years ago simply is not working. The idea was to privatize much of the care and make it more community based, she said, but essentially it has left many people in need of mental health care without treatment.
“We feel very strongly that mental health reform is not working — it’s broken,” Breedlove said.
The number of inmates in need of mental health care has grown significantly in recent years, according to Capt. Glen Matayabas, the facility administrator of the Buncombe County Detention Facility, which is run by the Sheriff’s Department.
In November, the jail averaged a daily population of 422 inmates, and about half of those needed some sort of mental health services. From October 2004 to March 2005, the jail and its social worker did initial mental health assessments for 109 inmates. For the six-month period running from April through September of this year, the number jumped to 238, he said.
“We’re trying to do the best we can to deal with it, but it’s a monumental increase,” Matayabas said.