Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts said he wants police supervisors to evaluate whether to send officers to emergency calls at hospitals and mental health facilities, a move that brought concern from a major hospital system and the Maryland Hospital Association.
Batts said the "moratorium" comes in response to an incident this month when officers were called to Good Samaritan Hospital and used a Taser on a teenage patient who later died.
Eight to 10 hospital staff had been trying to restrain 19-year-old George V. King when an officer used a Taser on King five times, including four stuns applied directly to his body, according to an account from a law enforcement source. King had also been given anti-psychotic medication and a sedative. Police announced after his death last week that they were investigating.
Speaking publicly about the incident for the first time, Batts said he was a proponent of Tasers — he was already moving to equip the entire 2,900-member force, an increase from the 400 Tasers in circulation last year — but was particularly focused on why officers were at the hospital in the first place.
"My young officer, who had about a year and a half [with the department], what is it that they wanted him to do?" Batts said in an appearance on the "Marc Steiner Show" on 88.9 FM, questioning the need for police officers to deal with difficult patients or other situations hospital security could handle. "What is it when we arrive that you want us to do?"
In a statement issued later in the day, police said that officers "should not be put into a position of enforcement action without a clear violation of existing law or threat to human life." Other kinds of emergency calls to hospitals would now be "based on supervisory review," the statement said.
Baltimore is home to nearly a dozen hospitals, many of which have their own security forces. Data on how often police respond to hospitals and mental health facilities was not immediately available.
Stephen R.T. Evans, the executive vice president and chief medical officer of MedStar Health, the second-largest hospital system in the state, which runs three city hospitals, including Good Samaritan, said MedStar "like all of Baltimore depends upon the Police Department to protect public safety."
"While we have our own security force, we call the police in situations in which we believe their assistance is absolutely necessary," Evans said. "Any delays in response by police, or decisions not to respond, pose a serious threat to our patients and employees and to our ability to fulfill our mission of caring for patients.
"The Police Department has the responsibility to keep all citizens safe," he said.
Carmela Coyle, the president and CEO of the Maryland Hospital Association, said hospitals "expect, and those we care for deserve, the same prompt response by the police that would be afforded any other citizen or organization."
"The Police Department's response policy must not be implemented in a way that treats hospitals differently than any other place or person when violence is threatened or imminent. It is important that evolving and potentially dangerous situations are responded to promptly, without administrative delay, and assessed on site, and not in a dispatcher's office. It is also important that hospitals and the Police Department keep an open communication and work together to ensure appropriate safety for those we both serve."
But Mary Lynn Carver, a spokeswoman for the University of Maryland Medical System/Center, said the Police Department's stance "appears to be consistent with how we work with them now."
Batts, who published a study on Tasers while he was commissioner in Long Beach, Calif., said there is "empirical data on Tasers that when applied correctly and with proper policy and instruction, are more humane" than other uses of force.
He said people could die from baton strikes, or suffer broken bones when officers try to subdue them by locking their arms. "There's not a lot of things we have that may not impact people," Batts said.
In February 2013, Batts said the agency was reviewing its guidelines on weapons, including Tasers. But 15 months later, the guidelines remain unchanged since 2007. They instruct officers to not use the devices excessively or without justification.
"We're in the process of updating all of our use-of-force documents," Batts said.
Police have cautioned that it's unclear what role, if any, the Taser deployments played in King's death.
According to a lawyer hired by King's family and an account from the law enforcement source, King had been taken to the hospital for a reaction to medication given following a dental procedure. The altercation with staff occurred after a procedure performed at the hospital, attorney Granville Templeton III said. King was in foster care and had been living at a city residential child care facility.
At some point prior to being struck with the Taser, King had been given the drug Keppra, which police said did not succeed in calming him down. He was brought under control after being given a sedative.
King was not considered in custody at the time, and the officers involved have not been suspended.
"We really don't know what happened at that scene yet," Batts said. "Was five [Taser strikes] necessary, was four necessary, was three necessary? The bigger issue is why were we there? Why were we called? Are we going to be called every time there's a struggling patient?"
Baltimore Sun reporter Colin Campbell contributed to this article.