Veterans Affairs lacks accurate data, accountability on police use — or misuse — of force

Abbie Bennett
September 08, 2020 - 2:47 pm
Department of Veterans Affairs police.

Department of Veterans Affairs

Department of Veterans Affairs data on police use of force is not complete or accurate enough to track trends, and VA headquarters does not always track possible misuse of force by its officers, a watchdog report released Tuesday found.

The Government Accountability Office's report examined data on use of force by VA's 5,000-officer police force at 138 VA medical centers nationwide. Most of those officers are also veterans. 

Of 1,214 records reviewed, GAO determined that about 15% did not include the type of force used, such as physical strikes with the hand, use of an "intermediary weapon" such as a baton or pepper spray or deadly force using a gun. Those records spanned from May 2019 through May 2020. 

VA also did not track whether officers were disciplined for misusing force, according to the report. 

VA's policy on use of force says officers should only use "physical control methods" to "stop potentially dangerous and unlawful behavior, protect themselves or others from injury or death, protect individuals from harming themselves, or arrest an individual resisting an officer's commands."

Officers are expressly not allowed to use deadly force "except to defend themselves or others when they deem the offending individual poses an immediate threat of death or serious injury to the officer or others." 

In at least three of the incidents GAO reviewed, officers reported a firearm was used, but did not report whether the firearm was "only drawn or actually discharged." GAO found 74 reports of VA police drawing or discharging a firearm in the records it reviewed, though at least three of those may have been duplicate records. 

VA police officers must receive a minimum 30 hours of deescalation and conflict management training. That includes training on the department's use of force policy they must complete when hired, and then biannually, according to VA policy. Officers are trained in classroom lectures and scenarios to use minimal force to deescalate situations, the report said. 

VA police officers record use of force incidents electronically. Then, the police chief decides which, if any, of those incidents should be investigated, according to the report. Of the six facilities GAO investigators visited, they said all six police chiefs conducted their investigations in a similar manner -- reviewing evidence and comparing an officer's actions with VA's use of force policy to decide whether that officer's actions were justified. 

Most of the investigations are conducted at the local level, the report said. But VA headquarters can also conduct investigations, such as when headquarters receive complaints against a particular officer.

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 police officers record incidents of force in a database, "but GAO's analysis indicates that VA data on use of force are not sufficiently complete and accurate for reporting numbers or trends at medical centers nationwide," according to the report.  The database also does not track incidents by individual medical center. 

VA headquarters does not systematically collect or analyze its use of force investigation findings from local medical centers, "limiting its ability to provide effective oversight," investigators wrote in the report. There's no policy at VA requiring local VA police chiefs to submit their use of force investigations to headquarters, and VA doesn't have a database to collect or analyze data on those investigations, according to the report.

"Collecting and analyzing such data nationwide would allow VA to better assess the impact of its deescalation policies and improve the agency's oversight efforts," investigators wrote. 

Veterans Health Administration officials told GAO this summer they plan to draft new policies requiring VA police chiefs to notify headquarters of "all use of force investigations and resulting disciplinary action." The department is also working on reorganizing police oversight to address data collection, but "VA officials could not provide a written plan or a date by which the agency will implement such policy changes," the report said. A senior VA official said the department is considering purchasing a database to track police use of force, but "could not provide any documentation of such plans." 

A little more than a year ago, Capitol Hill lawmakers told VA leaders horror stories of VA police misconduct, brutality and abuse. In July, Reps. Kathleen Rice, D-New York, and Chris Pappas, D-New Hampshire, introduced a bill to require VA police to use body cameras, and significantly increase training. 

A previous Inspector General report found that the VA police force not only lacked leadership and oversight but had 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.

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. 

In its August report, GAO recommended VA improve the completeness and accuracy of its use of force data, establish a tool to analyze use of force incidents across the department, ensure medical centers submit their use of force investigations to headquarters and analyze the data collected. 

Acting VA Chief of Staff Brooks Tucker agreed with GAO's recommendations and said the department planned to make changes to the use of force reporting system to improve accuracy, require additional training on the system for its officers and require additional review of those reports by police leaders. 

GAO investigators conducted the review and released the report as part of the Whistleblower Protection Act of 2017, requiring the watchdog agency to assess VA police services, including the policies for use of force, use of force training, how VA tracks and investigates use of force incidents and whether the department sufficiently collects and analyzes that data. 

Horror stories of VA police misconduct detailed at Congressional hearing

Former Veterans Affairs cop sentenced to 2 years in prison after brutal arrest of Army vet

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

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