Hennepin Healthcare, which operates one of the busiest trauma hospitals in Minnesota, is cutting its contract for law enforcement security at the end of the year and considering arming its in-house security force to protect patients and staff.

The decision has generated discord among Hennepin Healthcare leadership and some county officials, who fear it will make the hospital less secure. Outgoing Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek, whose deputies have patrolled the hospital for the past four years, said the change could open a “Pandora’s box” for civil liability, a public relations disaster and heightened regulatory scrutiny, if a security guard were to shoot a gun on the hospital grounds.

“They don’t have any more authority than a citizen,” Stanek said in an interview this week. “The only difference is they may be wearing a uniform and they may be carrying a gun — which, any time you introduce a gun into a situation, it’s a whole other set of circumstances and problems.”

Dr. Jon Pryor, CEO of Hennepin Healthcare, said he “wholeheartedly disagrees” with Stanek’s assessment. He said relying on hospital security more familiar with the health care clientele and staff, with an emphasis on de-escalation, will make the environment safer.

“What I would say is there’s less of a chance that one of our security officers is going to shoot somebody because our security knows our patients, knows our staff,” said Pryor.

Pryor said he’s still weighing his options and talking to law enforcement agencies about a potential month-to-month security contract. With weeks to go, it’s still not clear if law enforcement will be patrolling the hospital beginning Jan. 1.

Hennepin Healthcare, formerly known as Hennepin County Medical Center, runs a Level 1 trauma center in Minneapolis’ Downtown East neighborhood. Last year, its emergency room treated more than 111,000 patients, according to the hospital’s data.

The hospital hired the Sheriff’s Office to provide security after a shooter in August 2014 sprayed bullets from a car, intending to hit a rival gang member, and shattering the glass doors to the emergency room.

In 2015, the hospital paid $609,780 for full-time security, said sheriff spokesman Jon Collins. It reduced those patrols in the years since down to 12 hours per day, with the 2018 contract priced at $334,137, said Collins.

This summer, after hearing the hospital planned to end its contract entirely, Stanek wrote a letter to Hennepin County Commissioners expressing concerns about switching to security officers who may lack crisis-intervention training and have no authority to enforce the law or make an arrest.

“The chaotic and high-paced environment of the emergency room means that a matter of minutes, even seconds, could make all the difference between life and death to innocent bystanders,” wrote Stanek.

Hennepin County Commissioner Mike Opat said he shares many of Stanek’s concerns. He likened the security force to a “militia,” saying it’s not in step with how other hospitals approach security.

“It would be akin to the discussion around arming teachers in schools,” said Opat. “It’s indicative of dubious leadership happening at the hospital right now under Dr. Pryor.”

After Hennepin Healthcare decided to end its contract, North Memorial Medical Center hired the Hennepin County sheriff’s deputies to provide security on its campus.

Hennepin Healthcare currently employs 43 security officers and seven additional uniformed managers, said hospital spokesman Thomas Hayes. The security officers receive eight weeks of training upon being hired and must go through recertification every three years, with quarterly training on defense and verbal de-escalation tactics. Not all of them would be armed, said Pryor.

Next year, they will go through additional training on implicit bias with Webb and Associates, a company that provides coaching for police departments across the metro.

“Hennepin County is a major port for almost every culture in Minneapolis,” said Kelly Webb, senior partner for the company. “They’ve gotta be more than just security guards. They’re ambassadors and they’re an arm of the hospital.”

In contrast, sworn law enforcement in Minnesota must complete at least a two-year college degree program and achieve certification from the state’s Board of Peace Officer Standards and Training. Many police agencies require additional training for officers once they’re hired.

Stanek said his department’s deputies arrested dozens of people and “quelled a number of disturbances” over the past four years.

Pryor said he wants to move away from this police mind-set and emphasize training on a “softer-skills” approach.

“This is what police officers do — and God bless them — they focus on arresting people,” said Pryor. “Our security people, we don’t want them to arrest people. … We want them to help people.”