A report from the Department of Veterans Affairs’ watchdog suggests a lack of police staffing compromises security. Some facilities also have inoperable cameras.
Veterans hospitals are grappling with a shortage of police officers, making them more vulnerable to security risks, according to a recent federal watchdog report.
The Office of Inspector General within the Department of Veterans Affairs examined 70 VA medical centers and uncovered a host of concerns, including an insufficient number of police officers, inoperable cameras and a need to tighten security in some areas.
In a 60-page report on security deficiencies Feb. 23, the watchdog found many facilities lack “a visible and active police presence.” The VA operates 171 medical centers nationwide and about 1,100 clinics, caring for more than 7.3 million patients annually. About 380,000 people work at VA facilities.
“Security personnel frequently reported staffing shortages in the OIG’s survey results and often noted they were operating with very few officers,” the report stated.
The average rate of vacant police officer positions at VA facilities examined was around 33%, with some facilities seeing vacancy rates of 60%, the report stated.
“Staffing shortages are likely to compromise overall facility security, morale, and staff retention and underscore the need for maintaining communication with local law enforcement agencies for assistance,” the report states. “About 37 percent of survey respondents expressed concerns about the physical security at their facilities, some noting the lack of VA police on duty would sometimes make it difficult to respond to threats like an active shooter.”
In the 2022 fiscal year, there were 36 serious incident reports involving 32 VA medical facilities affecting security. In February 2022, VA police received a report about a bomb threat against the Robert J. Dole VA Medical Center in Wichita, Kansas. After evacuating and scouring the building, no suspicious devices were found.
The inspector general’s office said it examined VA facilities due to growing concerns about security. The office has pointed out deficiencies in police staffing in previous years. In 2018, 52 VA facilities reported a severe police shortage, and that number rose to 62 in 2022, the report stated.
VA facilities typically complied with security training requirements, but they need more resources to support their security personnel, including capable police operations rooms in better locations, according to the inspector general.
Some security cameras at VA facilities aren’t consistently operable, the report found. While some medical centers had highly functional surveillance systems, some facilities had cameras that weren’t functioning.
“Based on interviews with security personnel from the 70 sites visited, the OIG teams found that 19 percent of all cameras were not functional, with 24 facilities having more than 20 percent of their cameras not working,” the report stated.
Most, but not all, of the facilities had personnel actively monitoring the surveillance cameras, with 10 of the 70 having no staff looking at the feeds. VA has no national standard for monitoring or story video feeds, which the department should address, the report said.
Many doors and entrances in VA facilities don’t have security personnel. The inspector general checked 2,960 doors and found 87% of public doors didn’t have an active security presence, and 23% of public doors also didn’t have a security camera.
Of the nonpublic doors examined, 17% were unlocked and 43% didn’t have a security camera. And in some cases, those doors led to sensitive areas. At one VA facility in the midwest, an unlocked nonpublic door led to the surgical intensive care unit.
Generally, the VA facilities had good emergency response plans, but the inspector general said they could coordinate more with local law enforcement.
The inspector general recommended the VA Secretary should authorize staff to inspect VA police forces, and to designate someone to monitor security vacancies and examine if hiring efforts are leading to improvements.
In addition, the watchdog said the VA should direct police chiefs and medical facility directors to address security weaknesses and the agency should commit resources to ensure its security measures are sufficient. The VA concurred with the recommendations.