Natasha McKenna Case Exposes Flaws In How Someone In Crisis Is Treated: It’s Bigger Than Jail

Treatment Not Incarceration

Treatment Not Incarceration

2-23-15  The Washington Post editorial board joined me Saturday in criticizing the Fairfax County police and sheriff’s department for releasing a press statement that raised more questions than it answered about the death of Natasha McKenna, a 37 year-old African American woman with schizophrenia who suffered cardiac arrest after being shot repeatedly by deputies with a taser while in custody. (Read the Post editorial here.)

Sharon Bulova, the chair of the Board of Supervisors, which oversees the jail, police department and mental health services,  announced she will create a special commission to review law enforcement’s adherence to transparency. This comes after the police were accused of engaging in a cover-up about the police shooting of an unarmed man named John Geer. It was Tom Jackman, a reporter at The Washington Post, whose relentless reporting exposed how the police were trying to hide information behind legal maneuvers.

The McKenna investigation should be turned over to an independent investigator not tied to either the police or sheriff’s department. How can the police be trusted when they joined the sheriff’s office in releasing a shill of a press statement last week?

In addition to investigating what happened to McKenna after she was booked into jail, officials need to backtrack to the moment a clerk at a Hertz rental car agency called the police to complain about McKenna’s actions.  Here’s a press report by Peggy Fox of WUSA.

Alexandria police were called January 15th when she (McKenna) was seen acting strange at the Hertz rental car lot, from where one can rent a luxury car, and the BMW dealer on Pickett Road. A total of six officers arrived.

“She punched one officer in the face, she tried to bite an officer, she wrestled with some officers on ground,” said Craig Fifter with the city of Alexandrea. He says three of the six officers had crisis training.

“At no point in time was Ms. McKenna actually arrested by Alexandria police for anything, and certainly not for a crime. The focus was on getting her to the hospital,” said Fifer.

If that is accurate, why did Alexandria police later charge her with felony assault?

Alexandria police took her to Inova Alexandria Hospital where she was then processed with a temporary detention order which allows the hospital to keep her against her will. She was then transported to Inova Mt. Vernon Hospital where she was apparently admitted to the mental health unit.

Eleven days later, McKenna showed up at a grocery store to make a phone call. Again, here is Peggy Fox’s report.

On January 26, she walked into the Bestway Grocery story on Telegraph Road just South of the I-495. Workers say she seemed to be dressed in hospital patient clothing. They say she asked to use the phone, and after making the call, left her bag on the counter and walked out the back door.

Fairfax County Police say McKenna made the call to police that day alleging that she had been assaulted.

How did McKenna get from the hospital to that grocery store? Was she discharged? If so, was there a discharge plan? Was she assigned a case manager or was she simply shoved out the door? Did she walk away? Was she wearing hospital clothing?

Not only do the police and deputies need to explain their actions, so do the hospital and mental health officials.

After talking to the police, who had responded to her call, McKenna changed her mind about filing an assault complaint. Why? Had someone assaulted her? Her finger was injured. How had that happened? Did police talk her out of filing a complaint?

The Fairfax police took her to a hospital.  Why wasn’t she admitted to that hospital’s mental health unit?

While interviewing her, Fairfax police discovered she had an outstanding warrant — the felony warrant issued by Alexandria. They took her to the jail.

Sources told Peggy Fox that the only reason why they filed a felony charge was so they could take her to the hospital against her will. Charging someone with a crime to get them treatment is simply inexcusable. Being mentally ill shouldn’t be a crime and jails are NOT treatment facilities.

Once she was booked into jail, why wasn’t she immediately transferred to a state hospital? Why did it take Alexandria and Fairfax officials a week to decide what to do with her once she was in jail?

To look only at what happened in the jail is a big mistake. McKenna started down a road toward her preventible death when that Hertz agent first called the police.

The general legislature in Virginia has had time to pass legislation that made it legal for its residents to carry brass knuckles, throwing stars and ballistic knives. Unfortunately, our elected leaders in Virginia still have not seriously addressed the state’s broken mental health care system.

There has been a lack of leadership in Fairfax County regardless of the recent bragging by county officials. Except for Fairfax Police Officers Michael Kline and Tom Ryan, no departmental leaders have make Crisis Intervention Training a priority. After my book was published, my wife and I offered to contribute $500 a year to the CIT program because we felt it was so worthwhile. We stopped doing that when Fairfax County cared so little about CIT that it didn’t offer it for several months. (Click here to read my blog post.)

Until Fairfax Judge Penney Azcarate arrived at the bench, no one in the local judiciary was interested in pursuing problem solving courts even though mental health courts have been long established in other states and play a critical role in keeping persons with mental disorders, such as McKenna, out of jail and in treatment.

My goal in calling attention to the McKenna case has never been to attack the deputies who handled her. She was violent. It has been to shine a public spotlight on how we treat people with mental illnesses who are in crisis.

Everyone from our state legislators, our county officials, law enforcement and mental health professionals should be embarrassed and outraged that McKenna died because she had a mental illness and happened to live in Fairfax County.



About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.