A crowd of some 60 UCSF medical residents, students and faculty laid their bodies down in front of San Francisco General Hospital Monday evening during a “die-in” demonstration that challenged the role of law enforcement in hospital settings.

They wore their white coats, held electric candles and carried signs that read “Imagine Nonviolent De-escalation,” “Hospitalization ≠ Criminalization,” and “Sheriff Out Of the General.”

Their asks?

“We’re wondering if we can provide safety in hospitals in other ways without uniforms and guns and flashing lights,” said Sheyda Aboii, a first-year UCSF student who helped organize the event with the activist group White Coats for Black Lives.

Aboii said she and the others are asking for several changes. They want guns and Tasers banned from hospital campuses; hospitals to move away from using law enforcement as security;  hospital staff to not comply with SFPD or federal immigration agencies; and that UCSF make an official statement “decrying” Tasers, which the Police Commission recently approved.

“We certainly recognize there’s this desire to create safe space where professionals can provide care and those seeking care can receive it,” Aboii said. “But unfortunately, some of our patients have had bad encounters with [local law enforcement].”

During the demonstration, the students read aloud anecdotes taken during a 2016 survey of medical residents about their experiences with law enforcement in hospitals. Some painted officers in a positive light, highlighting their use of de-escalation tactics, while others painted a more uncomfortable picture.

“I did not call SFPD, but they came anyway, with multiple officers physically assaulting him — several restraining his limbs, while one pushed down on his chest and another officer choked him around the neck,” read one demonstrator from an anonymous account. “He was screaming that he couldn’t breathe; the officer replied ‘Good.’”

University of California at San Francisco Police Department Captain Eric Partika watched with two fellow university officers and one lieutenant from the Sheriff’s Department. While the Sheriff is mainly responsible for the hospital’s security, he said, UCSF Police also patrols General Hospital.

“You need that opposing opinion to make sure things are in check,” Partika said. “So hearing them today is great — we need to hear that voice, we need to know what their thoughts are, because it keeps the conversation open.”  

Did the students have a point that officers should not carry Tasers or guns in hospitals?

“Obviously, we’ll engage in a conversation,” he said, speaking to the use of Tasers, which his department will receive along with the SFPD in late 2018.

Sheriff Deputy Chief Ken Ferrigno, who was the captain of the hospital’s unit from 2013 to 2015,  said the Sheriff’s office provides security services to the hospital through a annually renewed contract. Moreover, the sheriff’s department has long used tasers.

Six Sheriff’s deputies and eight unarmed cadets patrol General Hospital during a shift, he said, with one at a fixed post at the ER.

“Gunshot wound victims drive up, and we have guns in area,” he said. “So sometimes we have to lock it down for safety.”

He also said sheriff’s deputies often escort inmates to medical appointments, some very regularly. So “if you walk around there you could run into 15 to 20 officers,” he said.

Ferrigno said deputies are not allowed to wear their guns in the “psych emergency services” ward or the locked (“jail-within-a-hospital”) ward.

He also said SFPD or California Highway Patrol often have to accompany suspects to the hospital if they’re not medically cleared for booking at the jail.

Ferrigno said he respected the purpose of the demonstration.

“Healthcare providers are caring people, and sometimes that comes in direct conflict with someone carrying a gun,” he said. “That’s been something you have to deal with when providing security for a hospital.”

Kafi Hemphill, a fourth-year resident and a founder of White Coats for Black Lives, said she believes there’s a robust law enforcement presence at General Hospital because of the prisoners and crime trauma victims the hospital serves, who are typically accompanied by police.

“When you talk to people who are in jails, and medical treatment they’re receiving, they express an amount of distrust with their provider because of the element they’re in,” she said. “And you see the same things happening in hospitals like this that allow a large police presence.”

But she said that security is important, especially for doctors. And, although she attended the demonstration, she wasn’t involved in drafting the day’s demands and did not have her mind made up.  

“The issues are real, and the ones they’ve stated are really important,” she said. “But I don’t know what an alternative would be.”  

For Aboii, the alternative is a more “social worker perspective” on providing security and care at the same time. “That goes hand-in-hand with the de-escalation we’re calling for — better communication and a familiarity that the uniform doesn’t bring to the conversation.”