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Dallas Police and the Dallas Jail: Logjam

Apr 18th, 2012 | Category: Dallas County

By SCOTT GOLDSTEIN and KEVIN KRAUSE, Published: 13 April 2012 10:59 PM

Dallas police officers say it can take hours for prisoners to be processed and screened for health problems at the county’s Lew Sterrett Justice Center, keeping cops off the streets for long periods at a time.

Since The Dallas Morning News began inquiring last month about the long delays, improvements have been made to streamline the process. But complaints from some officers persist, reviving a long-standing debate about medical screening processes overseen by Parkland Memorial Hospital that officers say are overly exhaustive.

“It still appears that after all these years that the major issue is with the medical line, the officers that have to wait up to or more than 45 minutes to be seen by a medical nurse from Dallas County,” said Dallas Latino Peace Officers Association President George Aranda, who queried his members about the issue this week.

“The biggest thing is waiting on the nurse,” said Black Police Association President Cletus Judge. “It’s really on the county and not the city.”

The county, city and Parkland are each conducting studies regarding wait times, and officials have been meeting privately to sort out the problems.

Officials with Dallas County and Parkland Memorial Hospital, which provides jail medical services, say they also want to cut officer wait times. But they say their primary responsibility is to make sure prisoners are properly screened for health problems so they can receive the correct treatment.

Ron Pinkston, president of the Dallas Police Association, raised concerns with local officials earlier this year. He complained then that officers were reporting hours-long waits. But things have improved significantly in recent weeks, he said.

Among the changes: Nurses have been added at times to help screen prisoners, and one nurse line is now devoted exclusively to prisoners transported in groups from other jails. That frees up the other nurses to attend to prisoners brought in by officers who need to get back on the streets.

An officer typically waits outside the nurse’s room while the prisoner is evaluated. Because the prisoner is still considered to be in police custody, the officer doesn’t usually complete the arrest report until after the prisoner is cleared by the nurse and put in a holding cell.

In an interview this week, Pinkston said officers have noticed improvements.

“They’ve made changes and officers are getting through lines much quicker than they had since three weeks ago, when they first started dealing with this,” said Pinkston, whose organization is the largest Dallas police officer union.

Failed inspections

Problems with jail health care in the past resulted in numerous failed state inspections as well as a federal civil rights investigation. A 2006 investigation found dangerous conditions at the jail that contributed to some inmate deaths. It led to a federal court order requiring many changes to the medical screening process.

That and other mandates have cost the county more than $100 million over several years. Federal oversight of the jail system, the nation’s seventh-largest, recently ended. The jail system last year passed its second state inspection in a row — after seven straight failures.

Chief Deputy Marlin Suell, the sheriff’s jail commander, said the booking process takes about 10 to 20 minutes. After that, the prisoner undergoes medical screening. But the county will not take formal custody of the prisoners until that screening for medical and mental health problems is finished, officials say.

Suell said his agency must follow strict requirements on the medical screening from the Texas Commission on Jail Standards and the U.S. Department of Justice.

“Their rule of thumb is you bring him in here and you step in these doors, you’re not leaving until I get medical clearance,” said Shannon Herklotz, an assistant director at the Texas Commission on Jail Standards. “Most of the large jails do that just because of the liability issues and these guys coming in with injuries and deformities and everything else.”

Sharon Phillips, a Parkland executive vice president over jail health, said her nurses and staff also must follow state and federal regulations.

“Abiding by these standards is critically important in early identification of individuals who require medical and mental health attention,” she said.

Phillips said Parkland, the Sheriff’s Department and Dallas police are each conducting a time study at the jail. The Dallas police study is expected to last at least a few more weeks.

“Then we will meet to share information and come up with solutions,” she said. “We’re trying to look at it very objectively.”

But nurses, officers and jail personnel apparently have known about the studies, which could be impacting their results.

Phillips said Parkland tries to pull nurses from other areas of the jail to work on prisoner screening if there is a rush.

“We never have any extra nurses, but we have areas we can pull from,” she said.

Phillips said another factor is that on peak nights, different police agencies will bring groups of prisoners into the jail, creating delays.

“Sometimes those chains arrive at the same time. Those who arrive last with their chain of inmates will have to wait a while,” she said.

Help from Parkland

Dallas Police Department leaders declined to be interviewed for this story and instead issued a written statement.

“We are working with Parkland to develop processes to reduce peak wait time for the medical screening of prisoners,” the statement said. “In 2011, the Dallas Police Department transported over 50,000 prisoners to Lew Sterrett Jail for processing. The Police Department has established a goal of 86 minutes for an officer’s total time at jail.

“The current average total time is 82.6 minutes. We are striving to reduce the time officers spend processing their prisoners so they get back to their patrol and investigative duties.”

The statement also said the average total jail time has decreased in each of the last two years and that improvements have been made to help lower that time, including in-car computers and computers at the jail for report writing.

But Pinkston said he maintains concerns about the average time and stated goal.

“That means there’s officers up there sometimes for three hours, and that’s way too long,” Pinkston said. “Officers should be out on the street way before that working to help somebody else.”

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