Representative Seth Moulton is right. It’s “on the federal government” to fix the bureaucratic blindness, poor management, and cruel indifference to a missing-person report that was brought to light by the death last year of Tim White, a resident of the Bedford Veterans Quarters. The incident should also prompt the Biden administration to take a hard look at how to improve the special police forces that patrol Veterans Affairs centers, which count about 4,000 officers nationwide and had been singled out for poor governance even before White’s death.
White, 62, went missing on May 13, 2020. His body, clad in the clothes in which he disappeared — a Red Sox jersey, jeans, and a baseball cap — was eventually found by another resident on June 12, in an emergency exit stairwell, about 60 feet from the room in which he lived. Following news reports about the incident, Moulton, then joined by Representatives Lori Trahan and Katherine Clark, and Senators Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren, called on the Department of Veterans Affairs Office of the Inspector General to investigate the circumstances of White’s death.
The findings show what happens when bureaucracy loses touch with common-sense thinking, not to mention basic law enforcement principles. Because White was not a patient of the VA medical center — but a resident of a VA-owned building that was leased and run by a nonprofit organization — the VA police force in charge of security at the campus did not search the building where he went missing. According to the report, this was largely due to a decision made several months before by Shawn Kelley, then chief of the Bedford VA police, that the residential property did not fall under VA police purview. So the chief instructed his officers to stop patrolling it.
According to the IG’s report, that decision was wrong — with deadly consequences for White. “Mr. White’s disappearance did not receive the attention it deserved from VA, an agency that is required by federal law to provide for the protection of all persons on its property,” wrote assistant inspector general Katherine Smith in a report issued by the VA Office of Inspector General.
According to the report, White began living at the Bedford Veterans Quarters in January 2020. The facility is operated by a nonprofit, Caritas Communities Inc., under a VA lease program. Caritas first reported his disappearance to the Bedford Police Department. No one — including Caritas management, Bedford police, and VA police and staff — ever searched the emergency stairwell in which White was later found dead. After being notified of White’s disappearance, the VA police department’s effort to locate him was limited to posting a photo of White on a department bulletin board and sending an e-mail to officers. It took the VA police chief almost two weeks to respond to a voicemail request from the Bedford town police to use police dogs to search for White, and no such search was ever conducted.
What’s really damning is that the VA knew long before White’s death that VA police forces in general were often poorly managed, and that the police force at Bedford VA in particular had a history of problems. Previous issues with the Bedford VA police department, reported by the Globe’s Andrea Estes in 2019, include a captain who staggered drunk into a Herb Chambers dealership, which former VA police officers said was symptomatic of a dysfunctional workplace: “The place is just chaos, the worst place I ever worked in my life” one former officer told Estes. “I’d rather go back into combat and worry about getting shot than go back to work there.” A 2015 report found rampant policy violations under Kelley, who resigned in February 2021. In addition, a former chief was imprisoned for plotting to rape and kill women and children. Tragedies like what happened to White are what can occur when officials ignore blinking red lights that signal an agency isn’t up to the job.
Concerning the disappearance of White, the IG report concluded, “there was widespread confusion regarding the physical area covered by the Caritas lease and VA’s related obligations.” To address it, the report offers seven recommendations. They include the implementation of policies and procedures that require VA police and other VHA staff to conduct searches for all persons who are reported missing; clarification of VA police responsibilities when it comes to searches for anyone reported missing; the need to get approval to exclude a building or area from search; and making sure leases with the VA are clear on maintenance and security obligations; the details on-site and discussed with staff; and an annual performance review.
Moulton, who is a veteran, believes even more oversight is needed. He is cosponsoring legislation with Representative Kathleen Rice of New York that would extend subpoena power of the inspector general to people who no longer work at the VA (such as Kelley, the former police chief) and another bill that would require the VA to publish regular activity summaries, statistics, and contact information. He is also talking to the VA about implementing policies that would give local police jurisdiction over VA police in life and death situations and funding for such investigations.
The fact that any of this is needed illustrates the very sorry state of the VA police, which Moulton said raises serious questions about whether that force should even exist. However, given the entrenched state of the federal bureaucracy, eliminating the VA police force might be harder than fixing it. So it is now up to Secretary of Veterans Affairs Denis McDonough not only to order up such an overhaul, but also make sure it happens — starting at the Bedford VA.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.