VA Overhauls Police Force After Scathing Watchdog Reports, Lapses in Hospital Security

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Department of Veterans Affairs police.
VA police officers Matthew Moressi (left) and Chavis Jefferson take a moment outside of one of the on-site police cruisers at the Columbia VAHCS. (VA/Jennifer Scales)

The Department of Veterans Affairs announced a major overhaul of the structure and management of its police force, in response to scathing watchdog reports on waste and poor oversight that led to lapses in security for patients and staff.

The announcement last week by the VA said that the police force of about 4,200 would be realigned at its hospitals and other facilities in a "critical step forward," following recommendations by the VA's Office of Inspector General and the Government Accountability Office.

"The realignment will be the most extensive since the creation of the police force and will fundamentally change standardization and oversight across the enterprise," VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said in a statement.

"This highlights my commitment to the high standards of professionalism and transparency across the department," which the GAO and IG's reports said had been lacking in management of the police force, he added.

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The two watchdog reports last year detailed short-staffing in the police ranks, millions in wasted overtime, and failures of inspections and oversight caused by a confusing command structure in which individual executives in the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) set differing standards for policing at hospitals.

"The governance problems stemmed from confusion about police program roles and authority and a lack of a centralized management or clearly designated staff within VHA to manage and oversee the police program," the IG's report said.

In the effort at reform, the VA announced that a police national governance body will be created to manage and oversee policy issues.

In addition, a new police modernization office will implement uniform standards for policing, and the VA police force will be divided into four multi-state regions under the head of a regional law enforcement director.

A police chief in each of the 18 Veterans Integrated Service Networks will direct law enforcement operations under the oversight of the Office of Operations, Security and Preparedness, the VA said in a release.

The problems in VA policing were highlighted at a June hearing of the House Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations on "Examining VA's Police Force."

Subcommittee members from both parties pointed to allegations of misconduct and excessive use of force by VA police.

Rep. Brian Mast, R-Florida, focused on a February incident at the West Palm Beach, Florida, VA Medical Center in which a double-amputee patient allegedly pulled a weapon from his motorized wheelchair and fired at least six shots in the emergency room, wounding a doctor in the neck and injuring two VA staff.

Mast noted that there was also a suicide at the West Palm Beach VA facility in February, adding that Wilkie had pledged "a complete review of our security protocols" in response.

Under questioning by Mast and others, Renee Oshinski, the acting deputy under secretary for health for operations and management at VHA, said a change in wheelchair policy was being implemented.

"We are asking at all sites that, when people come to the emergency department, they be put in a wheelchair that is owned by the medical center," she said.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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