New VA Policy Aims to Stop Veterans from Hiding Guns in Wheelchairs

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The West Palm Beach VA Medical Center in Riviera Beach, Florida. VA image
The West Palm Beach VA Medical Center in Riviera Beach, Florida. VA image

The Department of Veterans Affairs now has a policy requiring veterans in wheelchairs to switch to ones provided by the facility during emergency room visits to make sure they're not hiding guns, a top VA official testified Tuesday.

The policy was adopted following a February incident at the West Palm Beach, Florida, VA Medical Center in which a double-amputee patient pulled a weapon from his motorized wheelchair and fired at least six shots in the emergency room, wounding a doctor in the neck and injuring two staff members, said VA official Renee Oshinski.

Oshinski said the wheelchair transfer policy is directed at all VA medical centers, but she couldn't vouch for how many had put it into effect besides the West Palm Beach facility.

However, "we are asking at all sites that, when people come to the emergency department, they be put in a wheelchair that is owned by the medical center," said Oshinski, the acting deputy under secretary for Health for Operations and Management at the Veterans Health Administration.

Oshinski testified at a House Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations hearing on "Examining VA's Police Force" and security issues at VA facilities.

She was questioned by Rep. Brian Mast, R-Florida, an Army veteran of Afghanistan who lost both legs to an improvised explosive device.

Mast noted that there was a suicide at the West Palm Beach VA facility in February in addition to the shooting incident, adding that VA Secretary Robert Wilkie at the time pledged "a complete review of our security protocols."

In response, Oshinski said a construction project is underway at West Palm Beach to broaden coverage by security cameras and "to make sure parking facilities are patrolled."

Other members at the hearing cited instances of alleged use of excessive force and misconduct by the VA police.

Rep. Kathleen Rice, D-New York, cited the case of a constituent, Afghanistan veteran Jean Telfort, who said he was "body slammed" by VA police while recovering from spinal surgery after getting in a dispute with staff at the Northport, New York, VA Medical Center.

Telfort also said he was brought up on federal charges over the incident, which stemmed from a dispute with a medical support assistant at the hospital.

In response, Frederick Jackson, from the VA's Office of Security and Law Enforcement, said, "One incident of the use of force is one too many."

But he defended the actions of the VA police at Northport.

Agents interviewed Telfort at length after the incident and also interviewed witnesses. "Based upon what the police said to him and what Mr. Telfort said, the witnesses thought that the officers acted properly," Jackson said.

Oshinski told Rice "how difficult it was to listen to what you described during your discussion, and I am so sorry about what happened. And I wish we could go back and do it over again."

In his prepared statement for the subcommittee, VA Inspector General Michael Missal said his previous reports on the VA police force found that the "VA failed to develop adequate threat assessments and written policies" for its police, "which contributed to security vulnerabilities."

"Common challenges identified in these and other OIG reports, such as staffing shortages, the splintering of oversight responsibilities, confusion about roles, and lack of clear guidance can undermine VA's well-intentioned goals and objectives" for its police, Missal said.

In her own prepared statement, Oshinski said that the VA's police often encounter "trained military veterans suffering from medical and psychological traumas." Their training emphasizes defusing situations rather than resorting to force, she said.

"Due to the unique policing environment, all VA police officers receive specialized training at the VA Law Enforcement Training Center" in North Little Rock, Arkansas, Oshinski said.

"VA police officers are taught the necessary skills to resolve incidents in a humane, respectful manner," she added.

Currently, the VA has about 4,200 police officers, about 700 short of the level authorized, Oshinki said. The average salary is about $53,000.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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