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Veterans' hospital arming officers

September 24, 2000

Veterans' hospital arming officers



By BOB PARTLOW / Staff Writer, Martinsburg


MARTINSBURG, W. Va. _ The 12 police officers at the Veteran's Administration Medical Center soon will have a new weapon at their disposal to prevent and prepare for possible problems.

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By the end of the year, the officers who provide security for the 159-acre campus on Route 45 will carry guns, after they have been trained to use the weapons and passed psychological evaluations.

It's part of a nationwide effort by the VA to improve security at its 172 facilities. Nationally, four VA officers have been killed since the mid 1980s and two others were wounded. In North Carolina, a surgeon was shot in the heart by an enraged 83-year-old patient, who then was shot and killed by officers as he began to threaten others.

"That was a real issue in terms of protection of the safety of visitors, patients and staff," said Stephen Boykin, associate director of the Martinsburg VA Medical Center.

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Although the local VA center has not had any shootings, circumstances regularly arise that could lead to serious trouble, said Officer John Shade.

"It happens on a daily basis," he said. Shade has never been shot or stabbed, but someone pulled a knife on him once, he said.

Boykin and Shade said use of a gun will always be a last resort. The first option is to talk to someone to calm them down. Officers then will use an open hand, then pepper spray or a baton. "Our officers are good at talking down individuals," Boykin said. As a former social worker, Shade said he always tries to use those skills in dealing with people to defuse situations. All VA officers must have previous law enforcement experience.

But Shade and Boykin said trouble can arise any time or any place, especially in the emergency room. "There are often drug or alcohol problems, psychiatric problems," Boykin said.

"They come in here and they want something done right away," Shade said. "Like most emergency rooms, you have to wait. And a lot of people don't like that very much."

The bull's-eye may be bigger at this hospital because it is run by the federal government. Well-publicized incidents such as those in Oklahoma City tend to make federal employees more nervous.

"We have been approached by a number of employees asking 'when are we going to arm the police,'" Boykin said. "I think that just by virtue of the state of affairs in this country, the possibility exists that we could be targeted."

And the center "is a small community," Shade said. It has 79 buildings where 1,260 people work and 500 patients spend the night. Some staff members live on the grounds. It has 300-400 visitors daily. It has a store, bowling alley, theater, chapel and library. If serious trouble breaks out, officers now must wait for local law enforcement.

"Now our own staff will be provided with the tools to allow for immediate response without relying out outside assistance," said Chief of Police and Security Service Edgar Kidrick.

"This is a professional group of men and women," Boykin said.

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