Suicides, Violence at VMACs Put Spotlight on Security

WASHINGTON—As the number of suicides and other violent incidents at VA facilities grows, a spotlight is being thrown on VA’s internal police force and its ability to protect staff and patients.

A VA Office of the Inspector General report released in December found that VA had failed to properly manage its more than 4,000 police officers nationwide, resulting in staffing shortages, lack of oversight and confusion over who exactly is in charge of VA’s security force.

With seven veterans committing suicide in or on VA facilities in the first half of 2019, legislators are looking at this report in a new light—one that has serious implications for veteran health and safety.

“A police officer might be the first VA employee a veteran sees as they enter a facility. The tragedy of veterans suicide underscores the importance of their work,” said Rep. Chris Pappas (D-NY) at a hearing examining VA’s police force last month. “VA police officers are often the first to encounter veterans during a suicide attempt, and are part of the response team. We can and should find ways to improve their operations.”

At the facility level, hospital administrators are tasked with determining the level of police and resources needed and are responsible for implementing policies about use of force and hiring and firing of officers. But central to the IG report was confusion within the department over which offices were responsible for the oversight of VA police nationally, VHA or VA’s Office of Operations, Security and Preparedness.

“Governance issues resulted from a lack of centralized management or clearly designated staff within VHA to oversee police programs,” VA Inspector General Michael Missal told legislators.

That confusion resulted in the failure by both VHA and OSP to track police performance nationwide. There was also a failure to conduct inspections at individual facilities. Of 130 medical facilities with police units, 103 had not had timely inspections.

Lack of Oversight

The report also discovered that VA lacked facility-appropriate staffing models, resulting in staffing shortages nationwide. At least 40% of the facilities had a vacancy rate of 20% or higher. To make up for those shortages, VA relied on paying overtime to its police, costing VA over $26 million last year.

The IG’s office has started work on a separate audit to determine what information police forces are given, how that information is handled and whether it allows them to do their jobs properly, Missal said.

Legislators also questioned whether those offices who had been hired were being properly trained, especially in de-escalation techniques and handling incidents without resorting to force. 

Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-NY) told VA officials about being contacted by a veteran constituent who had been tackled by a VA police officer following spinal surgery. Similar incidents were reported by other legislators.

“It’s hard for me to sit here and answer questions after hearing the stories you’re talking about,” said Renee Oshinski, acting deputy under secretary for health for operations management. “Certainly anytime anything like this occurs, we have to go back and question whether or not the things that we’re doing are being effective.” 

According to VA officials testifying at the hearing, the department is on its way to solving these problems, with new VA police policy currently being developed. However, few timelines currently exist for when these issues will be addressed. VA does plan to catch up with their police force inspections, with 88 scheduled to occur before the end of the year. 

One very specific change in policy that’s happening nationwide stems from an incident at the West Palm Beach VAMC emergency room last February. A veteran entered the facility with a gun hidden under the cushion of his wheelchair and proceeded to open fire. The incident resulted in only one person being seriously wounded—the doctor who was able to subdue the patient. It will not be mandatory nationwide for veterans coming into the emergency department of any VA facility who are in a wheelchair or mobility-assistance vehicle to transfer to a department-owned device.

“Anytime there’s a serious event at one of our VA medical centers, we look in depth at what occurred and try to make improvements. Sometimes we find there are concerns we missed in the vulnerability assessment. The last thing any of us want is to repeat a mistake that leads to another serious incident,” explained Oshinski.

Construction has also begun at West Palm Beach to ensure adequate coverage of the facility by cameras, and police are being instructed to make more extensive rounds of parking facilities—something Oshinski said needed to happen at other facilities as well. Several of the on-campus suicides of veterans have happened in VA parking structures. 

“Part of our responsibility is making sure the parking facilities where veterans are coming in are patrolled,” Oshinski said.

Oshinski touted some recent successes by VA police, including the department’s increased use of social media tracking to prevent suicides. “Just last week we stopped somebody who posted on Facebook and said where they were going to [commit suicide at a VA facility],” she said. “Our police found them at the front door of that facility and talked them down and got them admitted.”