Felony assaults in Olympia have increased by 18 percent this year, and Olympia Police Department officials believe that mental illness is to blame.
The police department handled 53 felony assault cases between Jan. 1 and Aug. 31 — and 28 percent have been attacks on police officers, corrections officers and hospital staff, said spokeswoman Laura Wohl.
“The breakdown of felony assaults has really changed in the past year,” Wohl said. “The vast majority is still domestic violence, but now our No. 2 is assaults on officers, hospital staff, that kind of thing.”
In the past, the department saw more bar-related assaults than assaults on officers. But the number of bar-related incidents has decreased since the Olympia Police Department implemented a walking patrol at night, she said. The number of assaults on officers has steadily increased as the department has dealt more with people who are mentally ill.
“The assaults are happening in the jail, they’re happening in the streets, they’re happening in the hospital,” Wohl said. “The common denominator is mental illness.”
Police officers are usually victims of assaults when they are arresting or transporting people to the hospital for psychiatric evaluations, she said.
Jail Manager Chandra Brady said her employees have been punched, hit, kicked and spit on. Some inmates have even thrown bodily fluids at corrections staff.
“With the increasing problem were facing with managing the issues of the mentally ill, we’ve definitely been seeing an increase in these assaults,” Brady said. “There are just a lot more of these people coming through the system these days.”
For the most part, these assaults occur during the inmates’ first 72 hours in jail, she said. Corrections officers often don’t know the inmates’ mental status when they’re first booked, or the inmates are still under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
“Sometimes it takes time to figure out what the problem is,” Brady said. “You never know quite what to expect if someone is using drugs or alcohol, or if they’re off their medication.”
But there are some exceptions — some inmates have become violent after a few weeks in jail, she added.
So far, none of the assaults have been severe enough that officers have needed to miss work, Wohl said.
Brady said the staff undergoes training for dealing with mentally ill inmates, and the jail works extensively with Behavioral Health Resources to ensure inmates are diagnosed and treated. The city is also considering hiring more medical staff to manage inmates’ medication.
But despite these tools, Brady said safety is still a concern.
“Safety is always the top priority when you’re dealing with a population that’s in crisis,” Brady said. “But I know our people can handle the job, I know that they have the training to be safe.”