Wife of Correctional Officer Responds to Verdict in $2.5 Million Wrongful Death Suit Against Humboldt County
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This opinion piece, written by the wife of a Humboldt County Correctional Officer, was first published on her Facebook page and is in part a response to this article in the North Coast Journal.
At the urging of friends, Kären Hammer whose husband was named in the suit, asked to have her response posted on Redheaded Blackbelt.
I’ve had a week to try to process this and still am a mess of mixed emotions. After reading this article (by the North Coast Journal and shared by Redheaded Blackbelt) and the comments, as well as the Times-Standard article and opinion piece from the step-father of the deceased, I realize that there are many perceptions. None of us were there and it’s easy to have 20/20 hindsight.
This case and verdict have many flaws. I have thoughts about the trial and how it was handled and the representation the correctional officers received. I hope they fight for an appeal and are successful. And, while I wasn’t going to post anything about this because it is so upsetting, I can’t pretend that it didn’t happen, or some of the reasons why this happened…
Not just because I am married to him, but I am going to defend my husband, who has been a correctional deputy for the past 19 years. I know how hard he works; 12.25 hour shifts, currently nights, sometimes as many as 11 days in a row, missing family dinners, kids’ activities and sports events, and holidays. It not only comes with the job, but because the staffing is so low, mandatory overtime has been in effect for the past two years with no end in sight. I know his integrity is of the highest level and how seriously he takes his job. Rarely, if ever, does he call in sick. Those few times he has, he’s been miserably sick, and he almost never uses a family sick day even when I’m miserably sick because he knows how much they need people to show up. He’s never late. He knows the rules and the policies and he follows them. I know how dedicated he is to his fellow co-workers. He acts as shop steward and is a representative for the union negotiation committee. He often takes work-related calls, emails, and texts during the hours he is home and not sleeping. These things take even more of his time, unpaid, and away from our family. We know and understand it goes with the job. We hate it, but we also love and admire him for the example he sets. I also know how he truly cares for other people and despite the hard outer shell he has developed from this thankless job, that doesn’t pay nearly what it should, and all of the truly horrific things that he and his fellow officers are witness to within the walls of the county jail, that he would never, ever, do anything less than what he is well-trained to do and would never allow any person to suffer in the ways described by the plaintiff’s attorneys and decedent’s stepfather. Nobody works that hard at a job unless they care.
A man, with mental illness and a history of drug abuse, took a serious amount of illegal drugs and ultimately died. Why isn’t this his own fault? His family was well aware that he suffered from mental illness and was a chronic drug abuser, and his family, through the jury’s decision, ultimately faults the county and three correctional deputies, with combined 40+ years’ experience, and wants there to be better training for all of Humboldt’s correctional deputies. But, to what degree? They aren’t medical doctors, they don’t diagnose. They aren’t EMT’s or paramedics. They weren’t the ones who witnessed his behavior on the streets and arrested him, or made the decision to transport him to jail rather than the hospital. Their job is limited and requires them to make judgments based on perceptions and interpretations of action and non-action. Mind you that they also don’t know what kind of drugs or anything else could possibly be in this person’s system. So, they did what the policy states: call contracted medical staff. Medical made a determination that the inmate did not require treatment.
The correctional deputies continued to do their job, following policy, which is to observe at 15 minute intervals. I won’t go in to detail about the numerous things they observed the inmate physically doing, things most of us would find bizarre, but things that experienced correctional deputies see daily. Not to say that it makes bizarre activities “normal” but that this job requires making judgments. Judgments are just that – perceptions, and they can vary from person to person. So far, all the observations, judgments, and perceptions, based on training, years of experience and common sense, between everyone involved, were in agreement; the inmate was high, but otherwise fine. Until, one of Tim’s turns to make an observation when he noted the inmate was not moving. Tim called for help. Within minutes the inmate was transported to the hospital and despite efforts, he died as a result of heart failure due to drug toxicity.
The plaintiff’s attorney argued that the decedent was denied medical care by the correctional officers failing to recognize signs of distress, citing video footage from the jail. Their perceptions from watching the video (no audio), not from being there.
This is truly sad, for a lot of reasons. Besides the obvious, that a family has lost their son to drug abuse, (although I would argue they lost him a long time ago) there is not one mention in any of the articles or comments about how difficult this must have been for Tim or any of the other correctional deputies. Not one mention about the efforts made to save the inmate at the hospital and how upsetting this could be for the hospital staff to witness. Despite some of the atrocities our law enforcement and professional medical providers see, a death is something you never forget.
Now, I don’t know if the family ever tried to get their relative help, but the fact that the mother of the decedent didn’t visit him even one time during any of his 40+ incarcerations at the jail speaks volumes about how she washed her hands of him and handed him off to Humboldt when she and her husband moved away 12 years ago. That’s not to say that she didn’t love or care about him. I can even be empathetic that it must have been hard for her to watch her son live his life like that and perhaps feel so hopeless that there is nothing you can do to help. Regardless, he became one of Humboldt’s problems. You and I probably saw him downtown and crossed the street to avoid him. Or we parked our car somewhere else to shield our children from him. Or maybe someone recorded him and his antics to post on the “Only in Humboldt” Facebook page. It’s become normal for Humboldt, particularly Eureka. Did any of us reach out to help him? If no, why not? I can come up with a lot of reasons why.
There are some perceptions that none of us can deny. The drug problem in Humboldt is a problem. The mental illness problems in Humboldt are a problem. Sempervirens is short on beds and staff. They are known to advise law enforcement about soon-to-be-released mental patients, non-compliant on medications and other issues, who, once released, should be picked up and transported to the jail. The jail has become a babysitter for the mentally ill and repeat criminals, a house for felons who should be in prison, a temporary shelter for drunks and homeless who commit acts just big enough to come in out of the rain, want a free meal or healthcare, then add in a sprinkling of other reasons for incarceration for others and you have the full inmate population of approximately 400 out of a maximum capacity of about 426. Now multiply these people by alcoholism and drug abuse, and a host of other ailments, add in the recent assaults on officers, feces and urine being thrown at them, and many other situations too numerous to list and too vulgar for this post, and literally, you have the biggest shit-show in the county.
What a horrible, miserable job it must be to be a correctional deputy. When your husband comes home and tells you that he found an inmate dead or had to help cut someone down from trying to hang themselves, or says, “Don’t touch my uniform or boots – you don’t want to know what is on them” it sure makes you rethink about asking how their day was. Not because you don’t care, but because you don’t want them to re-live it.
So, does it matter when and where he died? I guess it depends on your perception. He could have died on the streets as some drug abusers do. Whose fault would that be? He could have died while in transport to the jail, or even to the hospital. Who would we blame then? No matter what any of our involvement, or lack of, seeing someone on drugs, or watching them die from drugs, isn’t, and should never be, normal.
The jail is hiring. Starting pay is a little over $16/hour. Now, who wants a job?