AJC Watchdog: First Alert

Keeping watch on those who hold the public trust and money

Atlanta VA police criticized for escalating incidents with veterans

Update: Atlanta VA hospital director Leslie Wiggins just responded to my post earlier today regarding aggressive police tactics by VA police. She says:

"The Atlanta VA Medical Center (VAMC) is fortunate to have a highly-trained federal police force to ensure the safety of our patients, visitors and employees.

On Saturday, September 27, six uniformed police officers were present during the Veterans Town Hall Meeting. Although a couple of Veterans expressed concern about the number of officers, our focus was on safety in the best interest of all those in attendance." 

Here's my origional post:

Poor customer service, concerns over timely access to care and delays in benefits payments were among issues raised by Atlanta area veterans at a town hall meeting with the local Veterans Affairs hospital director Leslie Wiggins on Saturday.

About 80 to 100 veterans attended and the level of shouts and applause each veteran received from their peers was one measurement of the extent of the problem they brought to Wiggins attention. When the problem of overly aggressive tactics by VA police officers was brought up many clapped in agreement. Judging from the response, many veterans have experienced the police tactics themselves or witnessed the problem at the hospital and benefits office campus just north of Decatur.

One veteran, Andrew Reed, told Wiggins she needs to do something about the police treatment of veterans. Reed said he's been going to the VA for 30 years and serves on the veterans advisory board at the hospital. He said the VA police officers too often escalate situations instead of calming them."The police officers here they need sensitivity training," Reed said. "A lot of times police officers come to an incident where a veteran might be takling loud or something and they bring the physical to it. It don't be no physical until they get there. The police officers in the VA need to have some sensitivity training and find out what's going on before they get physical."

Atlanta is one of 152 medical centers across the country that are served by a VA Police force based at each hospital. The Atlanta force has been plagued by scandal in recent years. The former police chief, Jeff Garrett, was reassigned last year after an investigation into inappropriate use of a computer.

A former secretary at the Atlanta police services division, Zerry Feaster, was sentenced last month for stealing over $80,000 from the agency through misuse of a government-issued credit card. She was sentenced to 13 months in prison and ordered to repay the funds she stole.

Wiggins did not directly address the issue of police tactics, but told the group of veterans she's been trying to work on customer service and employee satisfaction to improve the care veterans receive. Wiggins took questions from veterans for more than an hour and a half on Saturday morning. Many spoke passionately and emotionally about the challenges they've faced with the VA, while others said they have received good care at the facility.

Some veterans even complained about the heavy police presence at the town hall meeting Saturday. There were eight to 10 officers present in the auditorium on the ground floor of the hospital off Clairmont Road.

Wiggins did not immediately respond to a request for comment today and she did not make herself available for press questions on Saturday. She has declined repeated interview requests by the AJC over several months.

The AJC would like to hear from veterans who have experienced problems from the VA police force. You can contact reporter Brad Schrade at 404-526-2875 or brad.schrade@ajc.com.


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About the Author

Brad Schrade is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter on the AJC’s investigative team.