'What's happening is a disgrace': Staff at Western State psychiatric hospital fear for safety

SEATTLE (AP) — A patient with a history of violence has been charged with the weekend assault of a nurse at a Washington state psychiatric hospital that recently lost accreditation and federal funding due to safety violations.

He is accused of punching the nurse, knocking her to the floor and repeatedly stomping on her head.

Staff at Western State Hospital questioned Wednesday why a patient, who had been involved in a previous attack, was even there. They say state officials have failed to adequately manage dangerous patients, moving them to less-secure wards instead of keeping them in the high-security forensic unit. Staffing shortages exacerbate the problem, they say.

"This patient had severely injured somebody else and they transferred him to our ward," said nursing supervisor Willie Saw, who was on duty Sunday when the attack occurred. "We repeatedly told them not to do that. We are not equipped to handle a cage-fighter type of guy. I keep insisting to management that we're not a combat unit.

"I feel like every day I go to work, somebody is going to die."

Kelly Stowe, a spokeswoman with the Washington Department of Social and Health Services, which runs the hospital, said they can't comment on a particular patient. Stowe said patients are admitted to the secure forensic ward for competency services and may be moved if they have been found to be untreatable and dangerous and are then civilly committed.

"Our focus is on the employee who was assaulted as well as other patients and staff on the ward who are upset by the incident," Stowe said.

The 850-bed hospital has been plagued by problems for years and was repeatedly cited for health and safety violations, ranging from assaults on workers to escapes by violent patients, including a man accused of torturing a woman to death who was loose for two days in 2016. Past federal inspections also found a lack of qualified staff, fear of retaliation from managers and a focus on bureaucracy over staff safety.

After a surprise inspection in May found more violations, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services cut the hospital's certification and $53 million in annual federal funds.

Ahead of the attack Sunday, a nurse was watching television with a patient when 19-year-old Tommy Lee Berlin walked into the room and wanted to change the channel, according to the probable cause declaration written by a Lakewood police officer. The nurse told Berlin that there was only 15 minutes left in the show and he could change the channel once it ended, the document said.

The nurse left the room. Berlin followed her and punched her on the side of her face, knocking her to the ground where he continued to punch her, the document said. A witness pushed Berlin away from the nurse, causing him to fall on the ground. Berlin got up, chased the witness and then ran back to the nurse and stomped on her head at least eight times, the document said.

"I walked into the ward and saw a person lying on the floor face down in a pool of blood," said Saw, the nursing supervisor. "She was moaning and not responding. I thought she was dead - her face was soaked in blood. She vomited quite a bit."

Chris Lawler, spokesman for the Lakewood Police Department, said Berlin suddenly stopped attacking the nurse on his own. He was escorted to the seclusion room before being arrested.

When a staff member asked Berlin, who had blood on his hands and shoes, what happened, he said: "She was harassing me and I just lost it," the police document said.

On his way to the jail, he tried to bite an officer and spit toward his face, police said.

On Tuesday he was charged with one count of first-degree assault for the attack on the nurse, and one count of third-degree assault for his actions toward the officer.

Berlin's lawyer, Joseph Evans, did not immediately return phone and email messages seeking comment.

Berlin was initially sent to Western State Hospital in 2017 after a judge found him incompetent to participate in his defense after he was arrested for assaulting a Redmond police officer. He was to be treated to have his competency restored, according to court records.

In January, he was in the TV room when another patient came in and Berlin began hitting the patient with closed fists, court records said. He also attacked a staff member, "punching him repeatedly in the face, inflicting bloody injury to the mouth," the records said.

Hospital staff said his violent history and continued outbursts made him a patient who should have been held in a secure ward instead of living among patients who are at the hospital for medical and therapeutic care.

"What's happening is a disgrace," hospital counselor Paul Boros said. "I have seen staff and patients brutally assaulted and the only action taken is that patient gets to walk and is shuffled to another ward like nothing happened.

"This sociopathic patient tried to gouge out a staff members eye on E4 and the only thing the higher ups did was shuffle him to a least restrictive ward."