The VA has specific policies on the use of force by its police officers and those officers are trained on it regularly, but the department’s records of such incidents are incomplete and not fully accurate, GAO has said.
The GAO report was ordered by Congress after an inspector general report in 2018 criticized the department for shortcomings in controls of the police forces at its hospitals and other facilities tasked with protecting agency employees, patients and visitors. The officers are authorized to carry firearms, investigate criminal activities, and arrest individuals for offenses committed on medical center property, among other activities.
They “operate in a unique environment that requires balancing the treatment and care of veterans while also maintaining order and enforcing the law. For example, VA police officers might respond to incidents involving disruptive patients in emergency rooms or mental health areas that experience high levels of security incidents,” GAO said.
GAO found that the VA has specific policies governing the use of differing levels of use of force, ranging from the mere presence of an officer to potentially deadly force. Officers compete a 10 week basic training course on being hired—including issues such as how to respond to veterans with mental illness or a traumatic brain injury–and also undergo biannual refresher training, it said.
Further, officers are required to complete electronic records of their daily activities, including use of force incidents, in two main ways—daily operations journals and incident reports—which are reviewed by local chiefs of police on a daily basis. Any incidents typically are investigated locally but higher levels also may become involved.
However, in examining about 1,200 incidents over a twelve-month period reported in a central database, GAO found that “the data are not sufficiently complete or accurate for reporting numbers or trends about incidents across all medical centers. For example, of the 74 reports in which officers reported drawing or discharging a firearm, in 18 cases the officers reported some other type of use of force, such as handcuffs, as the highest level used.
GAO also said that the VA “does not systematically collect or analyze use of force investigation findings from local medical centers. As a result, VA is hindered in its ability to oversee officers’ use of force across medical centers.”
It said that management concurred with its recommendations to improve the completeness and accuracy of its use of force data; implement a tool to analyze use of force incidents at medical centers nationwide; ensure that medical centers submit all use of force investigations to VA headquarters; and analyze the use of force investigation data.