St. Joseph’s Hospitial in Paterson is restricting police officers’ access to crime victims at its emergency rooms, under a new hospital policy.
Supporters of the new policy said it protects victims’ civil rights and prevents them from being mistreated by the police. But critics say the new practices may hamper investigations and make it harder for police to solve violent crimes in a city that endured a 30-year high in homicides last year.
Police officers must wait outside patient care areas and let hospital staff members know they would like to talk with victims. The hospital employees then are supposed to relay the request to the patients, who have the option of whether to speak with the officers. The hospital also has begun barring detectives from taking victims’ possessions — everything from bloody clothing to cellphones — unless the investigators get a court-issued subpoena, under the policy.
“Once any person enters into our health system, health care ethics and laws obligate us to offer help and guardianship to aid in the healing process,” reads a statement released by the hospital. “This includes protection of privacy of health information and patients’ autonomy in decisions that affect health and well-being.”
Activist Ernst Rucker has “very strong concerns” about the new policy: “The first 24 hours after a crime are very critical,” Rucker said. “The longer the police have to go without talking to the victim, the longer it’s going to take to catch whoever did it.” He said he knew one recent shooting victim who never was offered the chance to speak with detectives while she was at the emergency room, and had to go to police headquarters after she was released from the hospital to give her account to investigators.
The hospital’s statement said it respected “the essential role and function provided by law enforcement officials and are fully confident that these changes will maintain the strong working relationships St. Joseph’s has with law enforcement.”
The president of the union that represents Paterson’s ranking police officers said he hopes St. Joseph’s will reconsider a policy he said has hampered investigations. “It’s a time-of-the-essence thing,” said the police union president Mason Maher. “We need to speak with the crime victims as soon as possible to get the crime solved.”
But according to Zellie Thomas, leader of the local Black Lives Matter group, police officers too often used coercion against crime victims at the hospital to get information from them. Thomas said police would confiscate victims’ belongings, like cellphones and wallets, and return the items only if the victims cooperated with investigators. “It became habitual,” Thomas says of the alleged tactics.
However, Healing Collective project director Liza Chowdhury, said she supports St. Joseph’s new policy. “The hospital has taken an important approach to protect not only patients’ rights,” Chowdhury said, “but also the hospital and police from actions that can create unjust conditions for patients, who should have the right to consent before speaking to anyone when they are in this vulnerable state.”