DANVILLE — Law enforcement at every stage always has operated under the mantra of “To Protect and Serve.” The police force at the Danville VA medical campus work to take the latter part of that creed to a new level for the men and women who fought for our country.
The police force for the Department of Veterans Affairs Illiana Health Care System has been around since such departments were created from existing security guard forces nationwide in 1971.
Unlike other police forces, these officers are faced with a different set of circumstances as they patrol a health care facility, according to Danville VA Chief Roger Brushaber II.
“We try not to arrest someone,” he said. “Most of our offenders are veterans with some type of medical or mental condition. What we try to do when we can is try to get the person into health care. That’s what we’re really here for — to make sure they get the care that they need, not to be punitive.”
For the 21 man — including Brushaber — force, that takes a different philosophy when handling some calls around the VA campus. It’s a departure from what Brushaber sees with other law enforcement.
“The police departments for years trained to be like military style and order people to do things,” he said. “A lot of times, that amps up the situation. We don’t order someone to do something, we ask them to do something. We try to get down to their level, lower our voice and get them to do things by compliance.”
Barking orders at a man or woman who has served time in the military isn’t going to earn the response VA police are looking for.
“You start yelling at a veteran, they’re going to yell back at you,” Brushaber said, adding the police work to achieve “voluntary compliance.”
As a result, officers need to enlist other tactics to bring down the intensity in a difficult situation. Among those is the background of the VA officers — all are veterans themselves with all but one serving in Iraqi Freedom/Enduring Freedom.
Patrolman Juan Guadarrama has been on the force for 2½ years. He said having served in the military is a boon for the officers in dealing with an erratic or troubled veteran on VA grounds.
“It does because it gives an automatic common ground since we’re all veterans,” he said. “We’ll use that, usually try to lead with that, and calm the situation. That’s a common ground that we use repeatedly and it helps us out a lot.”
Fellow officer Sgt. David Rusk calls the effort the officers put toward voluntary compliance “the cornerstone of the VA police.”
“We pull up on scene, a lot of these guys say you don’t know where I’ve been and what I’ve done,” Rusk said. “That may not be, but I can probably relate and empathize with you.
“It piques their curiosity and they talk to you, gaining the voluntary compliance and neutralizing the situation almost immediately,” he added.
Also a 2½ year member of the department, Rusk said a lot of the officers carry a pack of cigarettes while on duty whether they smoke or not.
“We’ll say ‘Hey you want to have a smoke and talk to me?’” he said. “It will almost always diffuse the situation. We gain their compliance and get them to receive the care they’re here for as opposed to going down another path.”
Not every situation is so easily dealt with, however. Officers earlier this month were forced to arrest a veteran at the VA on preliminary charges of making terrorist threats, disorderly conduct and criminal trespassing.
The man entered one of the buildings and began screaming that he was going to shoot the place up, Brushaber said, adding the incident came the day after the VA shooting in El Paso, N.M., and sent local staff scrambling for safety out of fear.
“You just can’t come into a place, especially a day after someone shot up one of our clinics, and tell them you’re going to shoot the place up and get away with it,” he said, adding that both VA and Danville police have dealt with the man extensively in the past.
Because it is a federal facility, the VA officers have to be ready for a litany of scenarios. As a result, training is considered a top priority. While Brushaber estimated municipal police officers go through firearm training by firing 40 rounds per year, the VA officers must fire between 800 and 1,000 rounds in training each year.
In addition, the officers go through 100 hours per year of other training, such as tactics and use of force. Between 20 and 30 hours of medical training, including elderly care and CPR also is required. And every five years the officers go through an eight-week refresher training academy in Little Rock, Ark. That includes Brushaber, who also goes through a supervisors and chiefs academy.
As former military men, Rusk said the training instills an increased level of camaraderie among the officers.
“We all have a common ground we can meet on,” he said. “The fluidity of the department and how we work together is so much better because of that.”
Guadarrama said the trainers try to space out the training exercises as best they can.
When I first found out about the job I was told about the training,” he said. “But it’s not until you go through that amount of training that you realize holy crap.”
“Honestly, I wouldn’t have it any other way,” he added. “It keeps us sharp.”
The VA police share their training equipment with local law enforcement as well.
“VA police are actually trained to a standard above a municipal police officer in the fact they are trained to operate in a medical environment,” Brushaber said. “So they are specially trained to deal with those with psychological problems, illnesses and such.
And the training is needed. On average, the VA police handle anywhere between 15 and 35 calls of service per shift. The calls range from someone locking their keys out of their car to reports of theft. The majority of the calls are disorderly conduct and assaults.
“We deal with everything the local police deal with, just on a smaller scale,” Brushaber said. “We do have things, like we found remnants of a mobile meth lab here on (the property). We have theft, we have assaults and we have allegations sexual assault.”
He added reports of staff members are just as common as those against veterans coming in for treatment.
VA police up until 2001 weren’t even armed with a firearm. The officers used to have only pepper spray and a control baton. The police forces across the nation were armed after 9/11.
Officers also conduct random check points on the property for security reasons because of overseas threats to the nation. One exterior exit and one building is done each shift and Rusk said officers are asked frequently why they are doing it.
“This is for health care,” he said. “We can’t be alike a military base and lock it down.”