Wash. VA security, police officer safety, compromised by radio problems, documents show
By ADAM ASHTON AND HAL BERNTON | The News Tribune (Tacoma, Wash.) | Published: July 27, 2014
The agitated radio call came in to Department of Veterans Affairs police officer Tim Plourd from a colleague who was being assaulted by a patient in the VA’s Seattle hospital.
The transmission was broken and choppy, as if the officer under attack were many miles away instead of in another part of the same building.
“I kept asking him, over and over again, ‘where are you?’ ” Plourd recalled.
The incident happened in 2009. The officer attacked by the patient returned to duty, but Plourd remains troubled about the problems of that day.
Five years later, the weak radio communications network still plagues a Puget Sound-area VA police force responsible for protecting thousands of patients and staff at the Seattle and Lakewood campuses.
The problem persists even after two separate 2012 investigations by the federal Occupation and Safety Health Administration and the VA’s own office of Inspector General found the radio system faulty and a serious risk to patient and employee safety.
The troubles in recent years have extended beyond the communication breakdown to include lapses in training, forged records, inadequate staffing and other issues. They prompted the national VA’s chief law enforcement office to conclude after a 2012 inspection that the force was operating “in an unsatisfactory manner.”
“What we have here is a fundamental failure” to protect VA employees, said Plourd, who has filed several complaints with the VA.
Plourd decided to speak to the Seattle Times and The News Tribune in hopes of spurring changes. Two other police officers who previously served at the Seattle VA also spoke to reporters, on condition of anonymity, about their concerns with the police force, which numbers about three dozen officers at the Puget Sound VA.
VA administrators declined an interview request from the newspapers. In written responses to questions, the VA said the police force has moved forward from the tumultuous period described in the 2012 investigation.
VA spokesman Chad Hutson wrote that the department has steady leadership after a period of rapid turnover in its top ranks. Earlier this year, the department passed an inspection and received an accreditation from the VA Office of Law Enforcement and Security, the same agency that previously called it “unsatisfactory.”
VA officials, in a June email to staff, acknowledged three dead spots in radio communications remain at the Seattle campus, but said the agency is making progress in upgrading the network. The department estimates it needs $530,000 to improve the system.
“We have requested the funding needed to make this happen,” the June 18 email said.
‘We’re dealing with our own’
The VA police force is a part of a sprawling veterans’ health care system that has come under withering scrutiny in recent months because of delays in patient care and reports that VA staff in Phoenix falsified records on wait times. Veteran Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned in the scandal’s fallout.
VA police are trained law enforcement officers, and many — including Plourd — are military veterans. This helps them deal with anxious or angry patients seeking health care in a system under strain from surging numbers of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans.
“When we deal with these folks, we’re dealing with our own,” said Plourd, 46, a captain in the Army Reserves who lives in Seattle.
Occasionally over the years, VA medical centers have seen violent episodes.
In 2002, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, VA police officer Jose Oscar Rodriguez, 53, was shot and killed while stationed at a front gate.
In Washington state, VA staffs periodically have faced threats of violence, including a 2011 assault by a patient at the Seattle VA that Plourd said seriously injured a fellow officer.
Workplace assaults by VA employees also have occurred.
In 2011, at the Seattle VA, an angry nurse kicked down a door, hurled a metal stapler and tried to bite, kick and hit her colleagues before being subdued, according to a state Department of Health investigative document.
A former VA employee faces charges of attempted murder after she entered a VA facility in Vancouver in February and allegedly shot Allen Bricker, the Northwest Region’s chief financial officer, twice in the chest with a handgun.
‘The danger is real’
Around the country, VA hospitals are taking different approaches to improve security. Some, such as a VA facility in Washington, D.C., are turning to metal detectors at building entrances.
Good radio communications are an essential part of security. An officer who encounters trouble must be able to quickly call for help and receive it.
The VA Puget Sound has a challenging layout for its radio network. The tall, dense buildings on the Seattle campus and the sprawling complex at American Lake both are difficult for signals to fully penetrate.
The VA has slowly been developing a new dispatch center and radio network. It has installed improved antennae, and it’s working on a solution to the remaining weak spots, the VA’s Hutson wrote.
In the meantime, officers say they have state-of-the-art radios that don’t work as intended because the VA has not invested in repeaters to carry signals throughout the hospitals.
Officers’ concerns about the network escalated after the 2011 assault by a patient. Plourd and other sources say the attack resulted in serious injury to the officer, who has since left the VA force.
Plourd contends the police response in that case was slowed because the radio calls for help were difficult to hear clearly. By the time police backup arrived, emergency room personnel had already jumped into the fray to assist the officer. He had been wrestled to the ground by a patient who also attempted to grab his gun, according to two officers.
That incident helped spur a complaint to OSHA about unsafe working conditions.
“Police officers deserve a fighting chance when face with exigent circumstances daily,” wrote an officer who requested the 2012 inspection. “Essentially police officers are talking into empty space with the odds stacked against them ... The danger is real.”
The OSHA investigation resulted in a citation for a “serious violation.” An inspector noted that the lack of a dependable communication system was a risk that could cause injury or death.
Over the years, Plourd and other officers say they’ve unsuccessfully brought forward proposals to link the VA with other law enforcement agencies for dispatch and communication services.
Police officers made another push to resolve the problem last September, when their union filed a grievance about lapses in the radio network. They argued officers were still at risk despite prodding from the IG and OSHA.
“A significant amount of waste and abuse of funds has occurred on the topic, but officers are still operating under the same radio conditions that resulted in (an officer) being injured,” states a grievance filed by AFGE Local #3197.
The VA Puget Sound administration rejected the grievance in January, saying the union had not filed it correctly.
Lapses in training, staffing, background checks
Plourd says the failure to fix the radios is part of a broader malaise in the operations of the VA Puget Sound police force that resulted in the 2012 “unsatisfactory” rating from the VA’s chief law enforcement office.
Many problems cited in that report related to training. For example, the records for firearms proficiency were so tangled that investigators couldn’t figure out if all officers had qualified, so the entire force had to go through it again.
Auditors took a close look at training records and found two officers did not receive training on the dates indicated on forms they had initialed. A lieutenant, who’s no longer with the department, acknowledged he had forged the initials of those and other officers.
Auditors also found that VA police were not properly staffing the Seattle hospital, sometimes failing to have at least two officers on patrols at all times.
Also in 2012, a dispute over billing prompted the Washington State Patrol to pull terminals out of VA facilities that had allowed officers to research criminal backgrounds of suspects.
That denied the VA police force easy access to information that most law enforcement agencies take for granted. Plourd said that added to the frustration of officers in the Seattle and American Lake facilities.
Without the terminals, Plourd said, officers lack basic information to assess threats by running license plates or names through the database. They also have trouble verifying criminal records they would use to move a case through the judicial system.
Officers “don’t know who they’re working with,” he said. “They can’t process paperwork if they do arrest someone.”
The VA is working to restore that background-check terminals, according to officials at the VA and WSP.
The dispute “has been resolved. We anticipate these being operational soon,” the VA wrote in response to questions from the newspapers.
Seattle Times staff writer Lewis Kamb contributed to this report.