Embedded Healthcare Policing


Scholars and activists are urging a move away from policing and towards more care-based approaches to social problems and public safety. These debates contest the conventional wisdom about the role and scope of policing and call for shifting resources to systems of care, including medical, mental health, and social work. While scholars and activists in favor of reducing society’s reliance on police recognize the co-constitutive relationship between policing and care work, they have not sufficiently grappled with the explicit overlapping mechanisms of carcerality. Surveillance and criminal enforcement permeate medical centers delivering care to low-income patients. Using numerous government records related to the U.S. Veterans Affairs Police Force (VAPF), this Article describes how the VAPF criminalizes low-income and sometimes Black or Latinx veterans with disabilities stemming from U.S military service. These populations are among the most medically vulnerable populations in the United States. It argues that care workers and health institutions become dependent on police to address harm and safety, and proposes alternatives grounded in anticarceral care to reduce reliance on police. In doing so, this Article shows just how difficult it will be to remove police from institutions because it requires rethinking care, not only policing. At the same time, this thick descriptive account provides a guide for how to reduce society’s reliance on police in institutional contexts. This Article assesses the multiple intersections between U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) healthcare and embedded policing as a metaphorical healthcare policing web. Part I maps the process of assimilating policing into the VA, providing a primer on the agency and its patients. It explains the convergence of order maintenance, disability management, and workplace safety regulations that built the embedded policing infrastructure in place today. Part II explains how police influence clinical decisions and the care environment through Disruptive Behavior Committees, criminal enforcement, and workplace threat assessments, thereby altering the institutional culture. Part III draws lessons from the VA and proposes a list of potential solutions, adopting an abolitionist ethic for decoupling care from policing and embedded police from institutions.

About the Author

Sunita Patel is an Assistant Professor of Law at UCLA School of Law and Faculty Director of the UCLA Veterans Legal Clinic.