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Just 29% of VA Police Officers Got Required Suicide Prevention Training Last Year, Senator Reveals

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Fewer than one-third of Department of Veterans Affairs police officers completed legally mandated crisis intervention and suicide prevention training last year, a top senator alleged this week.

Just 1,297 out of 4,505 armed VA police officers completed the annual training from January 2023 to March 2024, a compliance rate of just under 29% for law enforcement who may be front-line responders when veterans experience a life-threatening crisis, according to Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan. The senator pressed the VA for the numbers following a whistleblower complaint.

“This is wholly unacceptable, and I fear it is our veterans and VA’s workforce who are paying the price,” Moran wrote in a letter to VA Secretary Denis McDonough that was publicly released Wednesday. “There is no excuse for VA not taking all the steps the department can — much less the steps that Congress requires — to prevent the unnecessary loss of life.”

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The training requirements are mandated by a 2020 law known as the COMPACT Act. Moran demanded McDonough explain the department’s lack of compliance with the law and provide a plan to “guarantee the department’s compliance going forward” by May 24.

In a statement, a VA spokesperson did not specifically comment on the allegations in Moran’s letter, but said officials would respond directly to the senator.

“We at VA are focused on ensuring our employees at all levels, including police officers, have the robust training required to intervene and protect veterans during a crisis,” VA spokesperson Terrence Hayes said in the emailed statement. “We also deeply value the concerns of whistleblowers — who help make VA better — and seek to investigate and address their concerns with the utmost urgency.”

Congress passed the COMPACT Act in 2020 with the aim of providing better emergency suicide prevention care to veterans.

Amid concerns about suicides and other violent incidents happening on VA properties, lawmakers included a provision in the bill that mandates VA police officers receive annual training that covers behavioral science procedures for suicide prevention; crisis intervention and de-escalation skills; information about mental health and substance abuse disorders; and information about local law enforcement crisis intervention teams.

In his letter, Moran highlighted several incidents in recent years that he argued demonstrate the importance of proper training, including a 2022 case in which a veteran was struck and killed by a car after VA police escorted him off department property when he refused emergency room care and a 2023 indictment of a VA police officer on allegations he beat a man with a baton 45 times.

“When Congress passed and the president signed the COMPACT Act into law, it was with precisely these types of cases in mind,” Moran wrote. “VA leadership has prided itself on being ahead of the curve nationally when it comes to training officers in de-escalation and crisis intervention, yet recent tragedies indicate there is much more work to do.”

Moran’s letter is not the first to raise concerns about the VA’s implementation of the law’s training requirements. In a 2022 letter that said there were 230 suicide attempts and 15 suicide deaths on VA property the previous year, Rep. Chris Pappas, D-N.H., expressed concern that the department was skirting “the spirit — if not the letter” of the law on training its police forces.

While VA officials have said curbing veteran suicides is a top priority, the veteran suicide rate remains stubbornly high. The department’s most recent report on the issue showed 6,392 veterans died by suicide in 2021, an increase of 1.8% from the previous year.

Service members or veterans experiencing a mental health crisis or their loved ones can call the Veterans Crisis Line 24/7 at 988, Press 1. Help also is available online at VeteransCrisisLine.net/Chat, or by texting 838255.

Related: VA Police Shortages Leave Medical Center Patients, Staff Vulnerable, Watchdog Finds

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