WASHINGTON – The Department of Veterans Affairs failed to properly manage thousands of VA police officers who patrol its medical centers across the country, resulting in short-staffing and millions in overtime charged to taxpayers, as well as missed opportunities to ensure staff and veteran patients are protected, federal investigators found.
The VA Inspector General determined that national and regional VA security officials did not conduct required inspections for months to make sure firearm records were up to date, security plans were adequate, and oversight of critical incidents was conducted appropriately.
At headquarters, three of the six VA police officials responsible for doing the inspections were reassigned last year to provide security for the secretary and deputy secretary.
“The governance problems stemmed from confusion about police program roles and authority and a lack of a centralized management or clearly designated staff within (Veterans Health Administration) to manage and oversee the police program,” an investigation report released Thursday said.
The inspection delays – on average 10 months across nearly 100 medical centers –occurred even after prior reviews found problems with local VA police departments. In Chicago, for example, inspectors identified concerns about VA police officers not consistently advising suspects of their rights during arrests, but inspectors didn’t follow up for nearly a year to ensure the concerns were addressed.
James Byrne, acting deputy VA secretary, concurred with the inspector general’s findings and said VA officials will work with the IG to “make improvements to security and law enforcement programs and maintain the public’s trust.”
VA employs nearly 4,000 officers at 139 medical centers who play a critical role in securing property, preventing and investigating crimes, and, oftentimes, intervening to help patients or staff during potentially dangerous incidents.
The inspector general found medical center directors have been managing their individual police forces with minimal oversight from regional and national police officials.
A national operations official technically responsible for overseeing agency police operations told investigators that responsibility fell to a different official. That official, the director of the Office of Security and Law Enforcement, told investigators that the office “did not have awareness of, or control over, local police activities.”
The lack of oversight in some cases allowed problems with local police to continue for years without being addressed. In Seattle, for example, an inspection in 2016 found the police chief at the medical center there did not do required supervisory checks on officers or complete security assessments. The inspector general found those same problems had been identified during inspections in 2012, 2013 and 2014.
“Without an improved governance structure, VA will lack assurance that healthcare environments are safe and secure, and that the program operates effectively and efficiently,” the inspector general concluded.
Other federal police forces have centralized offices to provide greater oversight, including the National Park Service and the Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Protective Service.
The VA’s local approach meant staffing models are all over the place, investigators found. The VA started to develop some in 2016 but hadn’t finished as of September this year.
Short-staffing in recent years forced some medical centers to borrow officers from other VA hospitals, and cost taxpayers more than $26 million in overtime last year alone.
VA staff told investigators “factors contributing to recruitment and retention challenges included obtaining local facility approval to hire police officers due to changes in facility management, as well as competing priorities in hiring healthcare staff.”
The inspector general recommended the VA institute hiring and staffing strategies to help stem the shortages and evaluate the need for more centralized oversight of VA police.
VA officials said they would follow the recommendations and have fixes in place by September.
“Ensuring medical facilities nationwide are safe and secure environments for patients, visitors and employees is of the utmost importance to VA,” Byrne, the acting deputy VA secretary, wrote.
It’s not the first time VA police have been flagged for problems. Some 30 years ago, the inspector general found more than half of VA’s officers were either unqualified, unsuited, or both for the job, and nearly two dozen had prior criminal convictions.
In January, the Government Accountability Office found the VA did not collect and assess security data across its hospitals that could provide critical information about deficiencies or trends.
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