Washington Post Hungry For Villains: Sheriff Responds to Criticism, Says Real Problem Is Jailing Mentally Ill

NEWSHERIFF_0113869663065-13-15   The Washington Post has published several editorials criticizing Fairfax County Sheriff Stacey A. Kincaid because of the death of Natasha McKenna, a 37 year-old woman with schizophrenia who died shorty after being shot with a taser four times while being held in the county detention center. Her death is still being investigated by the Fairfax Police Department.

I met with Sheriff Kincaid recently and she gave me a copy of a written response that she had submitted to the Post after it published two editorials. The paper declined to publish her letter. Here is her response to the Post.


By Sheriff Stacey A. Kincaid

It’s not every day the Editorial Page actually makes news instead of simply commenting on it, but the Post has managed to do that with its call (April 22) for civil disobedience to replace the justice system and attempt to prejudice the process of an active, independent legal investigation. In your editorial, “The Outrageous Death of a Fairfax County Inmate” (April 14), you demand immediate accountability, transparency and action in response to the incident in advance of the completion of an investigation by the Police Department, and any ultimate decision by the Commonwealth Attorney. You also accuse me, in particular, of withholding information. I must respond because I know justice ultimately will be done in this case, and also in the interest of journalistic fairness. There also is a teachable moment here, not only for those of us who have dedicated our lives to law enforcement but also for members of the community who believe in dignity and fairness for those who come into contact with the criminal justice system.


I have no intention of prejudicing the outcome of an investigation in advance of the facts by answering questions to which I do not have the answer or by anticipating actions I might take once all the facts are in. Of course I was “disappointed that someone chose to release internal documents prior to the completion of the criminal investigation,” as you wrote – for the same reasons I think anyone interested in justice and fairness would be. The only thing that is “unacceptable” with regard to my so-called “unacceptable response,” as you put it, is that you demand one before the investigative process has run its course. Such action would be unprofessional and equates to lynch mob mentality. If this country stands for anything in its legal system, it is due process. The Post’s editorial is not an opinion piece: It is a call for mob justice before all the facts are known. The inmate fatality that occurred at the Fairfax Adult Detention Center has not been forgotten or ignored. The Sheriff’s Office has cooperated with the investigation fully. The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner has not completed its review of the autopsy or issued a report. To attack the Sheriff’s Office for not prematurely releasing more information is irresponsible.

Across the nation, people are having serious discussions about how to alter the dynamic that too often exists between some law enforcement officers and individuals. Out of each case, we learn something that will help us go forward. So, as justice pursues its course in Fairfax County, let’s not lose sight of the real underlying problem: the systemic mishandling of mentally ill patients who have few or no resources and law enforcement struggling to deal with untreated or under-treated individuals.

The following information is provided for the edification of your readership and is in no way intended to justify or defend situations involving wrongdoing by law enforcement agencies anywhere.

Our jail – like many in our area and across the nation – has become a warehouse for individuals with mental illness who have been unable or unwilling to access effective clinical care, social services and housing in the community.

About 40 percent of the inmates in our jail have been identified as needing some level of mental health care during their incarceration. More than a quarter have a serious mental illness – often combined with a substance abuse disorder – that requires intervention, regular treatment and medication management. The Sheriff’s Office is working to improve mental health care at the jail, but as of this writing, we have no available options to properly divert individuals under arrest and avoid unnecessary incarceration.

As I have done for years, I will continue to advocate locally and in Virginia for more treatment centers for minor offenders who are seriously mentally ill and would be better served in a mental health facility than in a jail.

I am as eager as anyone for the investigation to reach a conclusion. As for this incident, I repeat here what I have stated before: It is my desire that the full information about the case be released when it is completed.

I have pledged my 28-year career with the Sheriff’s Office in service to the safety, security and well being of all Fairfax County residents, and to do so as fairly and transparently as possible. I will continue to work with mental health organizations in search of solutions to an intractable problem facing vulnerable individuals for whom all of us, out of nothing more than common human compassion, must assume some responsibility. Given the Post’s demonstrated hunger for villains in this situation, the paper no doubt will accuse me of attempting to change the subject. But this IS the subject.

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.