Authorities are launching a criminal investigation after police officers in Los Angeles say they videotaped five hospital patients being dumped on Skid Row over the weekend. The incident is being cited as the latest in an ongoing problem of indigent hospital patients being dumped on the streets with no one to care for them.
The 50 square blocks of Skid Row are home to more than 10,000 people with no where else to go. It has many shelters, social service agencies -- as well as convicted sex offenders and just about any illegal drug you can think of.
In other words, it's no place for someone who's still sick enough to be transported in an ambulance. But last Sunday, Los Angeles police captured video and still photos of five patients from a single hospital being dropped off in front of the Volunteers of America Service Center.
We told the ambulance driver that the person wasn't appropriate for us," says Jim Howatt, director of the center's homeless services, "and they wouldn't be able to leave them. And it's about that point that the police became involved."
When the police interviewed the first couple of ambulance drivers they found out that the drop-off wasn't a fluke. It was more like a plan, says police Capt. Andrew Smith.
"Sergeants interviewed the ambulance attendants and found out that there were three more ambulances waiting on the corner of 22nd and Western," Smith says, waiting to drop off more people in the area.
The hospital at 22nd and Western is the Los Angeles Metropolitan Medical Center. Calls to CEO John Fenton were not returned. The hospital said it would be releasing a statement later Tuesday.
Police who interviewed some of the patients being left at Skid Row say that none of them reported asking to go there. One man, says Capt. Smith, had asked to be released to his children's home in Pasadena.
Our supervisors actually gave that guy a ride back to his house, and his family was outraged," Smith says. "Not only did they not know that he'd been discharged but the fact that he'd been brought to Skid Row instead of home further outraged that family."
That's one reason why Jeff Isaacs, head of the City Attorney's criminal and special investigations unit, says one criminal charge being considered in the case is that of false imprisonment. And because the location in this case is such a dangerous one, elder abuse is another possible criminal charge.
Obviously, a hospital can't go to jail. But Isaacs says a criminal conviction could result in very serious consequences, "in terms of their accreditation and licensing, their ability to participate in government benefit programs like Medicare."
"So a criminal prosecution would be taken very very seriously by a hospital," Isaacs says, "even if it was a misdemeanor prosecution."
Isaacs says the city attorney opened a criminal investigation into patient dumping on Skid Row nearly a year ago. But the cases are very hard to make. The homeless aren't always good witnesses, he says, and a victim with no fixed address can be difficult to find.