Body cameras would be required for Veterans Affairs police under new bill

Abbie Bennett
July 24, 2020 - 3:25 pm
Department of Veterans Affairs police.

Department of Veterans Affairs

Department of Veterans Affairs police would be required to use body cameras and significantly increase conflict resolution training under a bill introduced in Congress July 24.

The VA Improvement and Accountability Act is an effort to "increase transparency and reform" on VA's police force, which has come under fire in recent years after episodes of police brutality, abuse and lack of oversight. 

Reps. Kathleen Rice, D-N.Y., and Chris Pappas, D-N.H., introduced the bill, the latest in a building series of suicide prevention in the House. 

About 20 veterans die by suicide daily, according to the most recently available VA data -- a figure that has stagnated or worsened in recent years, despite continued legislative efforts and increased programs and spending all intended to prevent it. 

House lawmakers believe VA police, and oversight of the force, plays a role.

“We have a responsibility to ensure VA police have accountability, working body cameras, and the tools and training they need to de-escalate crises,” House Veterans Affairs Chairman Mark Takano, D-Calif., said in a statement, adding that the bill would address "officer training shortcomings, require the use of body cameras and enat other important measures that will increase accountability and transparency."

A little more than a year ago, Rice told VA leaders during a Congressional hearing about a veteran at the Northampton VA Medical Center who, while recovering from spinal surgery, was allegedly tackled to the ground by VA police and handcuffed. When he asked for a police report from the incident, he received a summons in the mail to appear in federal court on criminal charges.

“He told them he was in pain, that he had just had spinal surgery, that he couldn’t breathe,” she said. There was no body camera video in the case. 

“Major reforms are needed at police departments across our nation, and the Department of Veterans Affairs police force is no exception,” Rice said in a statement.

Under current VA policy, police can only use body cameras for "investigative purposes" and are not allowed to use them for "routine taping of conversations during patrol and other duty activities." 

VA's police force is comprised of more than 4,000 officers, the vast majority of which are also veterans. The bill did not include an estimate for the cost of additional body cameras, training or storing video archives.

A VA Inspector General report found that the VA police force of more than 4,000 not only lacked leadership and oversight but had also wasted millions of dollars in overtime and created security gaps. Members of Congress said they were concerned the lack of governance may have led to criminals on the force, following reports of police arrested for or involved in DUIs, domestic incidents, brutality on the job and even murder plots. 

Horror stories of VA police misconduct detailed at Congressional hearing

VHA leadership said VA police officers undergo 30 hours of de-escalation and conflict management training, but lawmakers called for increased training after a series of veteran suicides on VA property, since department officers can be the first responders to incidents of veterans in distress. 

VA police officers are overseen by two different offices at the federal level: the Veterans Administration and the Office of Security and Law enforcement (OSLE). VA police forces are controlled at the local level, with the administrator of each VA medical center managing their own police force, including hiring and staffing.

VA leaders have reported difficulty hiring and retaining department police officers. One of VA's top vacancies across the department is officers. Higher turnover can lead to less experienced officers who require more training, officials said. 

Following the Inspector General report and Congressional hearing, VA leaders promised policy changes aimed at accountability and additional training. The bill introduced Friday would order those changes, including regular reports to Capitol Hill. 

The bill specifically would require: 

  • VA establish police contacts at individual facilities and provide public information on arrests and use of force;
  • A report on VA's plans for improved police staffing and training, and how it tracks and analyzes police activity such as arrests, ticketing and uses of force;
  • Use of body cameras for all VA police officers in all interactions on VA property, except when impossible because the officer is in danger. The video recordings, under the bill, would be preserved for investigations and future training;
  • Increased training, resources and staffing for crisis intervention and de-escalation with input from local community and civil rights leaders. 

Veteran suicide prevention legislation

Rice and Pappas' bill is the latest in a series of legislation filed in the House aimed at preventing veteran suicide, part of a coordinated effort by House Veterans Affairs lawmakers to build a package of legislation of programs, improvements and additional funding for VA and partner organizations. 

The Solid Start Reporting Act was also introduced Friday by Rep. Robin Kelly, D-Ill., and Brian Mast, R-Fla., calls for annual reports on VA's Solid Start program. That program is intended to contact veterans within their first year of separation from military service to connect them to VA benefits and evaluate any mental health needs they may have.

Kelly, a former mental health counselor, said the bill also calls for additional VA oversight.

"We know that a simple conversation can be effective in providing support to struggling veterans and their families,” she said. “However, Congress must ensure that programs designed to address a real and growing crisis work. If not, how can we improve them? Providing for the mental health of service members, veterans and their families is everyone’s responsibility and Congress will continue to do our part through funding and oversight.”

Both bills are expected to see committee debate in coming weeks, potentially alongside other recently introduced bills including: 

  • The Veterans' Acute Crisis Care for Emergent Suicide Symptoms Act introduced by Takano earlier this year, which would provide free mental health care to any veteran in crisis, no matter where they receive it;
  • The VA Zero Suicide Demonstration Project Act, introduced by Reps. Susie Lee, D-Nev., and Jack Bergman, R-Mich., which would create a pilot program for the project at five VA medical centers;
  • The VA Clinical Training in Evidence-based treatments and Military (TEAM) Culture Act, which would require additional suicide prevention training for all healthcare providers who treat veterans. 

In the Senate, a major veteran mental health bill is poised for a vote on the floor and Senate Veterans Affairs Chairman Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, has pledged to pass it. 

If you or someone you know needs help, contact the Veteran Crisis Line 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255 (select option 1 for a VA staff member). Veterans, service members or their families also can text 838255 or go to veteranscrisisline.net.

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Reach Abbie Bennett: abbie@connectingvets.com or @AbbieRBennett.

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