A hostage crisis at a veterans’ home that led to the deaths of three employees has prompted a California law enforcement union to repeat its appeal to arm its officers who protect state hospitals and veterans’ facilities.
A former patient at The Pathway Home, a non-profit program at the Veterans Home of California in Yountville which helps veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder readjust to civilian life after returning from overseas, entered the building during a going-away party for several employees on Friday, reports USA Today.
The shooter, identified as 36-year-old Albert Wong, was armed with an assault rifle and exchanged gunfire with police before taking three employees hostage for eight hours.
Police later discovered the bodies of 42-year-old clinical director Jennifer Golick, 48-year-old executive director Christine Loeber and 29-year-old clinical psychologist Jennifer Gonzalez, who was seven months pregnant. The three victims and the gunman died from gunshot wounds.
Previous Attempts to Arm Yountville Officers Denied
Nine unarmed state public safety officers currently work at the 615-acre campus, which is the largest in the country with approximately 1,200 residents, according to The Sacramento Bee.
The California Statewide Law Enforcement Association, a union that represents a variety of public safety employees, including the nine officers at the veterans’ home, released a statement Friday afternoon urging the California Department of Veteran Affairs to begin arming Yountville officers.
“Despite being unarmed, they are tasked with the responsibility of protecting a very large campus of residents, staff, and visitors 24 hours a day, and local law enforcement relies on these public safety officers as the front-line security for the hospital,” the statement read.
The union has previously urged state leaders to arm the public safety officers to no avail.
In 2012, a bill that would have required the Department of State Hospitals to arm CSLEA-represented officers passed unanimously in the Senate and by a 78-1 margin in the Assembly. Governor Jerry Brown vetoed the bill, indicating that the department director can make the decision to arm peace officers without a law explicitly requiring it.
“I am sensitive to the unique challenges of providing security in our states’ mental hospitals,” Brown wrote in his veto message. “This is a matter, however, best left to the discretion of the department director who already has authority to arm its officers.”
CSLEA has also unsuccessfully attempted to convince the Department of Veteran Affairs to arm officers under an existing law, arguing the officers should be able to protect the people at state institutions and themselves.
“It’s just delay, delay, delay. They don’t want to do it,” said CSLEA senior counsel Ryan Navarre.
June Iljana, deputy secretary for communications at the veterans department, says CSLEA exploited the hostage crisis.
“While families are still waiting to hear from loved ones, and law enforcement remains on the scene, this group is already attempting to exploit and politicize tragedy,” she wrote in a statement. “This is inexplicable, inappropriate and inexcusable and our focus remains on supporting the veterans’ community, emergency personnel and everyone else impacted.”
Gunman Removed from Program for Making Threats
Wong was being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder at The Pathway Home until he was removed from the program two weeks ago, says state Senator Bill Dodd.
“He needed more treatment and the way to get more treatment was a referral, which they kind of indicated to him a better pathway for him and he apparently, obviously didn’t like it,” said Dodd. “And if you have somebody that can’t work within the system it makes it very difficult for everyone to get better.”
Two anonymous law enforcement sources say Wong had previously threatened one of the women he killed, reports CNN.
Wong was in the Army reserves from October 1998 until December 2002. He served in active duty from May 2010 to August 2013 and was deployed to Afghanistan from April 2011 to March 2012. He was honorably discharged from the Army, according to authorities.
Jeffrey Watts, who served with Wong in Afghanistan, says he told him through texts and phone calls that he’d been “put out on the street without a treatment plan” after multiple “run-ins with staff and other patients at the VA home over racial disparities.”
Wong received several awards and medals, including an Army Commendation Medal, Army Good Conduct Medal, Afghanistan Campaign Medal with two campaign stars, Global War on Terrorism Service Medal and Expert Marksmanship Badge with Rifle.
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