Armed at the Hospital: What is a Special Conservator of the Peace?

LYNCHBURG, Va. (WDBJ7) Nearly two years later, many questions remain about a shooting at Lynchburg General Hospital.

In January of 2016, Jonathan Warner, who was seeking help in Centra's Psychiatric Emergency Room, lunged toward a Centra Security Guard with a stun gun. The guard shot Warner in the back four times, leaving Warner paralyzed from the waist down.

The psychiatric facility has since closed and no criminal charges were placed on either side, but a few months ago Warner’s mother filed a 100 million dollar lawsuit against Centra and two other parties.

The program that allows Centra’s security guards to be armed at the hospital is known as “Special Conservators of the Peace”. The Special Conservators, or S-Cops, are sanctioned by Court Orders and regulated by the Department of Criminal Justice Services.

S-Cops are not unique to Centra, you can find them across the Commonwealth. Some are contracted by homeowner’s associations and you can even see them in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

“They're law enforcement officers. They're licensed by the Department of Criminal Justice Services, but they're not cops,” said Mike Doucette, Lynchburg Commonwealth’s Attorney.

Doucette signs of on the S-Cop court orders before they are put into place and has to review cases if anything goes wrong.

There are about 468 S-Cops in Virginia. About 17 work for Centra, according to DCJS.

They have arrest powers, can be armed with a gun and Taser, and can serve documents like warrants or Emergency Custody Orders that detain people for medical evaluation in extreme situations.

S-Cops are brought into facilities that need more than just security guard presence, but can’t have local police officers staff 24/7 because of limited resources. Hospitals are just one of these places that need extra surveillance, considered a “hard target”.

“Hospitals are vulnerable. You just pray nothing happens. Really, you can't control what comes in and out of those doors,” said Ken Roberts, a former Centra employee.

Roberts used to work for Centra as an S-Cop. He was denied the right to carry a gun, but was armed with a Taser.

In most of the court orders issued for Centra S-Cops, they are allowed to carry a firearm. However, regardless of the court order the hospital can then grant or take away these privileges based on various evaluations.

These weapons are put in place to protect from outside forces, according to Roberts, who shared multiple stories where he was put into dangerous positions.

“Searching a man one night and he had a cane, well obviously you want to get the cane away from a mental health patient. He could hurt you with it,” said Roberts. “So I unscrewed the bottom of the cane and it had a blade…like that. He could have just unscrewed it. If I left the cane sitting there, he wanted to do something…”

Their uniforms have badges and patches that, according to Roberts, caused people to mistake him for a Lynchburg Police Officer. But even though their authority doesn't differ too much within the scope of Centra's property, S-COPs require much less training.

“To look to the public like any other police officer,” said Dana Schrad, Executive Director of Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police. “Their training standards were woefully below that of a police officer.”
Schrad was a part of the team with the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police that pushed for more training across the commonwealth in 2015, taking the mandatory hours from 40 to 130 for an armed S-Cop.

“To be a nail technician you need 150 hours of training, so even though we've gone from 40 to 130 we still require more training from a nail technician before we give them a license,” said Doucette.

Those training classes are taken locally at Central Virginia Community College, formerly offered at Liberty University. The training outline includes: Legal Procedures/Due Process, Civil Law, Criminal Law, Basic Law, use of force/liability issues, obtaining an arrest warrant, rules of evidence and court room testimony.

The new requirement for 130 hours of training does not go into effect until July of 2018, according to the legislation passed in 2015. An exact date for the new training has not been announced, nor have the contents of the new training program.

According to DCJS, the training requirements must be established by a regulatory review process and that process has not been completed.

Many of Centra's S-Cops are former law enforcement and all have up to date training. That includes Wesley Gillespie, the S-Cop who shot Jonathan Warner back in 2016.

Warner’s attorney, Paul Valois, argues that while Warner’s training was up to date, the training for the program in general is deficient.

“If they're going to interact with psychiatric patients or mentally ill people, then they need to be qualified to do that,” said Valois.

According to current requirements, there is no mandatory Crisis Intervention or Behavioral Health training required to be an S-Cop in Virginia.

“In a setting such as a hospital where you have visitors, where you have people who are either physically or mentally impaired in some way, that takes a special kind of training (and) a special kind of individual,” said Schrad.

While S-Cops are not required to be CIT certified, the employers can opt to add on additional training. It is not clear how many S-Cops at Centra have been CIT certified, Gillespie was not at the time of the shooting.

Because Centra is a private company, they are not subject to public oversight or open records requests like a local agency or police department is.

WDBJ7 did reach out to Centra and gave them an opportunity to participate in this story, but they declined due to the pending lawsuit filed by Warner's family.

S-Cops are needed versus regular security guards because of their ability to serve documents like warrants when traditional law enforcement can’t always be there.

“Because look what's coming in off the street. If you don't and people know it, my God. Look what's going to happen. Look what could happen,” said Roberts.

Adding on extra training takes up more time and more money.

“That’s the balance. Do we want to have cops in the hospital? Lynchburg Police officers? Fine, pay them. It will require a raise in taxation,” said Doucette. “Or we can have Centra pay these officers and train them at their expense. It is a political decision that's been made.”