Readers React With Skepticism About Officials Promises of ‘Transparency’ In Investigating Woman’s Death In Jail


Fairfax County readers of this blog are angry and distrustful of local officials based on emails that I received this week about the Natasha McKenna police investigation. Many of you do not live in Virginia, but you have been following my posts about the death of the 37 year-old African American with schizophrenia who was shocked with a taser at least four times while in handcuffs and leg restraints inside our local jail.

Her death is yet another example of what can happen when persons with mental disorders become entangled in our criminal justice system instead of being diverted into community treatment. Sadly, Fairfax County has dragged its feet on accepting Crisis Intervention Team Training and implementing such jail diversion tools as a mental health court.

This week, our chief of police announced that his office had completed a five month long investigation of the McKenna case but he didn’t reveal specifics.  Instead, he turned his report over to the local commonwealth’s attorney who will determine if criminal charges will be filed.  That office has not filed criminal charges against anyone in law enforcement involved in a police shooting while on duty since the police department was created more than seventy years ago.  Fairfax County averages about four police shootings per year. About half of those involve persons who have a diagnosed mental illness.

One troubling shooting involved David Masters who attempted to drive away from officers after being ordered to stop. Masters, who had a diagnosed mental illness, was suspected of taking flowers from outside a business. The officer who fatally shot Masters was later quietly discharged from the police force.

In a much more public case, police fatally shot John Geer in the doorway of his house. Geer did not have a mental illness but his death outraged residents when it was revealed by my friend, Tom Jackman, a reporter at The Washington Post, and Geer’s attorneys that officials had intentionally kept details from the public.

Master’s death, accusations of a coverup in the Geer case, and the police shooting of a local optometrist, Salvatore J. Culosi, prompted Sharon Bulova, the chair of the Board of Supervisors, to create an Ah Hoc Committee to review current police practices and make recommendations. More individuals were added to that committee after residents grumbled that it was top heavy with law enforcement and their supporters. (I agreed to serve on that committee.)

Although the committee was told not to investigate specific cases, its members are closely watching the McKenna case. So far, Sheriff Stacey Kincaid, Police Chief Edwin C. Roessler Jr. and Chairwoman Bulova have promised full “transparency.” But nearly all of the details about the McKenna case have come from leaks to the media.

Because of these previous cases, especially the Geer case, critics are worried that information about McKenna will be kept secret under the guise that it is potential “evidence.” One piece of “evidence” is a video that was taken by jail officials of Natasha McKenna when she was being forcibly removed from her cell by six deputies. Although officials have promised to release that video, it has been labeled as  “evidence” and not made public.

My fear always has been that officials will blame the victim. This often happens when someone is mentally ill. There is a natural assumption by some that anyone who has a mental illness clearly is to blame for whatever happens to them. This is both unfair and untrue.  It marginalizes the lives of individuals with mental disorders.

After being interviewed by a local news station this week and posting a blog about Chief Roessler’s YouTube statement, I received emails from readers. Here are some excerpts.

 “The massive brute and electrical force applied to this terrified 130 -lb woman certainly stretches any definition of the “objectively reasonable” criterion.

“Transparency demands release of the video of her being Tasered. The public has a right to see first hand how deputies treated her.”

“Fairfax County’s Police Department is out of control — not only with the McKenna episode but also the John Geer shooting. If I were an individual in a psychotic episode and I had been held in a jail cell with little light and close, closed walls, I’d be pretty scared. ”

“The Sheriff’s Department and Fairfax police may have followed procedures, but their procedures are sooooo  bad.  The deputies sent in a swat team (or just like it) to corral this scared individual, treating her like an animal to be captured instead of a human being towards whom to be kind and compassionate.”

It is a good thing that I am not on the special commission because I would grill the officials in charge about their humanity towards those who are mentally ill.  I am afraid the Police Chief’s statement and the department’s report is a total whitewash of the events that happened.  McKenna is going to be viewed as the perpetrator when she is, in fact, the victim.  If there was ever a need for comprehensive Crisis Intervention Team Training in the police force and jail, this is it.”

“Thanks for keeping the focus on the real message — that our elected officials and their officiaries are unaccountable. The process used in Fairfax is to feed us doubletalking, non-responses wrapped in earnest, politically correct bullshit statements and press releases. Whether it’s Chief Roessler reading his duplicitous, misleading You Tube summary or Sheriff Stacey Kincaid or Supervisor Chairwoman Sharon Bulova promising “transparency,” I find this situation infuriating. The language and tactics used in Fairfax to conceal information and protect the interests of those in power are downright Orwellian. In Fairfax, when citizens are denied basic information about their government’s actions, it’s called “transparency.”

“What pisses me off the most is that these guys (starting, in my opinion, with Bulova & Safety Director Dave Rohrer — former police chief) are getting away with this. Six months out and still no action taken to name the persons involved or to tell the whole story of what happened to McKenna. How pathetic is it to have Roessler claiming at least a one month delay in completing the 5 month long investigation due to the fact that they couldn’t find a vendor to test the taser? How transparent is it for him to outline the work done in the investigation using “bullet points” and then being desperate enough to dedicate one bullet to the fact that they “transcribed” interviews? How about the fact that he said the Sheriff called in the police department on 2/8/15, according to the media, when life support was being removed? The chief’s  presentation suggested that the Sheriff’s Office properly notified the police in a timely manner and requested a criminal investigation. However, press reports stated that then department was initially refused access by the Sheriff’s Office to the scene.”

 “From where I sit, this is an issue that goes beyond the treatment of persons with mental illness. It’s about more than excessive use of force or lack of proper procedures and training. The thing that concerns me most is that our local government officials are operating like Fairfax County is their personal fiefdom. As though the lives and deaths of David Masters, Culosi, McKenna, Geer, etal should be none of our concern. “Don’t you worry, we have this covered. No need to trouble yourselves with these things”. They seem to have forgotten that holding an elected office implies accountability to the electorate and that the authority to deprive citizens of their liberty and to use deadly force is bestowed by the taxpayers they have been sworn to serve.

“I believe Fairfax County government’s veneer of openness, civility, courtesy and efficiency conceals a dark, cynical and pervasive culture of croneyism. It’s insidious and it’s invisible to most citizens. Most of us, most of the time are blissfully ignorant of what our elected officials get away with. We don’t care. Shame on us for allowing the police and other officials to bully us or bullshit us into submission and complacency.

 “Why hasn’t anyone taken the Medical Examiner’s Office to task for issuing a report that blamed Natasha McKenna for her own death? That report said she died from “excited delirium” — a condition that only happens when someone in law enforcement shoots a citizen and authorities are trying to avoid a lawsuit and excuse an officer. How can anyone have any confidence in the independence of a Medical Examiner or the commonwealth attorney when they immediately circle the wagons and simply say and do whatever is necessary to protect the police?”

“The Chief’s statement is the first in what will be a series of Fairfax officials throwing up their hands and saying: we are innocent. All we did was follow standard procedures. It wasn’t our fault. But the facts speak for themselves. A 130 pound woman with a mental illness was kept in jail for nine days and ended up being shot multiple times with a Taser when six deputies couldn’t “control” her in a jail. Ridiculous! If that is standard operating procedure, God help us all.”

Clearly, current officials need to restore public confidence. A good step would be to make public the police department’s investigation and the evidence that it collected after the commonwealth attorney makes its decision.

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.