Veterans are not all criminals and do not need harsh policing.

A Department of Veterans Affairs police officer in the West Los Angeles VA Medical Center recently was indicted for allegedly striking a veteran 45 times with his baton. This indictment is an outlier, but veterans regularly experience such over-policing in VA hospitals across the country.

In 2021, UCLA’s Veterans Legal Clinic found that “the VAPD heavily polices the physical spaces inside and surrounding health care facilities.” The report continues, the VA police “features heavily in patients’ health care experiences … which includes incidents concerning behavioral health, welfare checks, and assisting staff.”

In my work as an attorney with the Veterans Treatment Court in the Northern District of Illinois that includes Chicago, I routinely meet veterans who are monitored and disciplined for their behavior through federal tickets and are required to appear in federal court.

One of these veterans, who was in inpatient psychiatric treatment, yelled at the medical staff. VA police were called to assist, and the responding police officer observed a boisterous veteran, who was suffering from mental health symptoms. Instead of de-escalating the situation, the officer issued a $250 ticket for this disorderly conduct.

From May 2019 to June 2021, Tampa, Fla., VA and Los Angeles VA each had thousands of incidents reported. These are just two of the 172 VA medical centers around the country.

One of the VA’s goals for 2023 is to end veteran homelessness, which results in the VA hospital becoming a place where many unhoused veterans go to receive shelter from the weather and find community and services from social workers. About 43% of veterans experience mental health conditions, over 33,000 veterans were unhoused, and about 1.2 million live below the federal poverty line.

Instead of that mission upholding practices throughout the VA, veterans have been ticketed for loitering, trespassing, or even eating food from the VA cafeteria without paying. Instead of resolving the root cause of those crimes — poverty and homelessness — VA police ticket veterans with a petty offense or Class A misdemeanor.

These tickets may cause stress around appearing in federal court, financial strain of a ticket that can range from $25 to $500, and maybe the worst outcome, deter veterans from seeking much-needed assistance from the VA in the future.

Communities like Portland, Ore.; Denver; and Detroit have begun to develop strategies away from traditional policing. In Denver, a community pilot targeted emergency calls to health care responders instead of police. That pilot and study found that there was a 34% reduction in crime reported, as the health care responders were less likely to criminalize the offenders.

As counsel, I meet many of these veterans in court. Like many treatment courts across the country, this court focuses on a more holistic set of needs, including housing, food insecurity, employment, VA benefits and civil legal needs. Most of those services are provided by a VA social worker, who is already housed at the VA.

So why do the VA hospitals that serve veterans who may be unhoused, in poverty, and suffer from mental health conditions look to criminal charges, rather than focusing their efforts on the underlying conditions that the VA was created to address?

To be clear, VA police provide an important resource for the medical staff, as nurses and doctors must be able to work in a safe environment. However, the VA needs to embed social workers and mental health clinicians to provide de-escalation services when veterans are in need.

VA police need other tools, besides ticketing, to ensure that veterans are receiving basic services to meet their basic needs. Providing VA police with trained mental health providers and social workers to respond to the unique needs of veterans will stop the criminalization of veterans at the VA hospital.

As communities across the nation create behavioral health units to complement policing, VA hospitals must do the same. Our veterans deserve humane treatment, not more harm.

Yelena Duterte is an assistant professor of law and director of the Veterans Legal Clinic at the University of Illinois Chicago’s School of Law and a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.

The West Los Angeles VA Medical Center.

The West Los Angeles VA Medical Center. (Department of Veterans Affairs)

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