Charges Against Fairfax Officer In Taser Incident Wouldn’t Have Happened Without Public Outcry About 2 Earlier Deaths

(6-11-20) Millions of Americans have watched bodycam video of a white Fairfax County (Va.) police officer fire a stun gun probe into an unarmed, clearly disoriented black man before pinning him to the pavement, striking him with the stun gun and apparently firing another jolt to subdue him.

Fairfax Police Chief Edwin C. Roessler Jr., and Commonwealth Attorney Steve Descano immediately condemned Officer Tyler Timberlake’s actions. Roessler called the officer’s conduct “horrible” and “disgusting,” adding “What you see here is unacceptable. It does not value the sanctity of human life.”

Timberlake was charged with three misdemeanor counts of assault and battery.

To fully understand the refreshing importance of Roessler’s and Descano’s actions, you must look backward at two earlier deaths at the hands of Fairfax law enforcement.

Natasha McKenna’s Death By Taser

On February 9, 2015, I received a telephone from an employee at the Fairfax County Adult Detention Center (jail) telling me that a 37 year-old black woman with a serious mental illness had died after being repeatedly stunned with a Taser by deputies removing her from a cell. I posted a blog about the incident the next morning identifying Natasha McKenna, a mother with serious mental illnesses, as the victim. A jail official and county public information officer dismissed my blog as “hearsay” and claimed it was exaggerated.  But The Washington Post and other local news outlets quickly confirmed my information and, under public pressure, Sheriff Stacey A. Kincaid released a video of McKenna being stunned at least four times.

What happened next was indicative of how Fairfax County handled complaints against law enforcement.

The then Commonwealth Attorney, Raymond E. Morrogh, concluded that McKenna’s death was an accident and the deputies did not break the law. Incredibly, Morrogh cast blame on McKenna. His investigation into her death was riddled with self-rationalizations by the six deputies who had restrained her – all eagerly promoted by Morrogh. The prosecutor quoted officers stating that the 130 pound, five foot, four-inch tall McKenna possessed super human strength, was unaffected by the repeated Taser’s thousand plus voltage, and acted as if she was in “like a demonic possession.” 

Armed with a cooperating autopsy by the Office of the Medical Examiner, Morrogh declared the cause of death was not heart failure caused by repeated jolts of electricity but excited delirium, a questionable cause of death that the American Civil Liberties Union claimed was frequently used by prosecutors “as a means of white-washing what may be excessive use of force and inappropriate use of control techniques by officers during an arrest.”

I was asked by the Fairfax NAACP to speak at a protest outside our courthouse. Sadly, it drew little attention at the time.

The Killing of John Greer

Roughly at the same time as McKenna’s death,  Fairfax County was reeling from a much earlier fatal police shooting. John Greer, a 46 year old, unarmed white man not charged with a crime, was standing outside his Springfield house with his hands raised above his shoulders when, without warning, Officer Adam Torres, an eight-year police veteran, fired a single shot killing him.

Prosecutor Morrogh initially balked at prosecuting Torres and the police clammed up.  Nearly two years after the killing, a judge forced the police to release information about the shooting. In a Washington Post editorial, the paper declared that “everyone involved in this (Greer) case has dropped the ball and dodged responsibility, enabling what now looks like a cover up in a case of police impunity.”

Public anger about Morrogh’s foot dragging led to the appointment of a special grand jury which indicted Greer on second-degree murder. It was the first time in the 75-year history of the police department that an officer had faced criminal charges for actions while on duty.  Torres spent ten months in jail until he cut a plea deal with Morrogh that essentially released him for time served after he agreed to plead guilty to the lesser charge of manslaughter.

Anger about the deaths of Greer and McKenna, spurred then Fairfax County Supervisor Sharon Bulova to form an Ad Hoc Police Practices Review Commission.

I served on that body and clearly remember being verbally castigated, often with profanity, during a public meeting when a self-described Black Lives Matter protester and other residents rightfully complained about Natasha McKenna’s death. Although the sheriff’s office was not obligated to participate, Sheriff Kincaid sent a representative and cooperated with the commission. After six months, our commission issued a 197-page report that called for major police reforms, including the hiring of an independent police auditor to ensure that internal investigations of police use-of-force cases were impartial, and a citizens review panel to field complaints from the public about abuse of authority or serious misconduct by police. Our report demanded greater police transparency, more use of body cameras by officers, and Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training to defuse situations that involved individuals with mental illnesses.

Thankfully both Chief Rosseler and Sheriff Kincaid began implementing our reforms.

The next big change came last year when Morrogh, who’d held the prosecutor job more than 35 years, was defeated in a Democratic primary won by Descano, who’d campaigned on a platform of criminal justice reform.

It’s  doubtful any action would have been taken against Officer Timberlake had it not been for the preventible deaths of Greer and McKenna and the public outcry that they caused.

How can I be so certain?

Long before those deaths, my adult son was shot twice with a taser by a  Fairfax County Police officer. I’d called the county asking for help from mental health officials. Instead, the police arrived. My son was watching television when officers entered the house and ordered him to come with them for a mental evaluation. He agreed, but hesitated when they began to handcuff him before placing him in a squad car. He shouted that he’d not committed any crimes and began to run – that’s when he was shot twice with a stun gun.

There was no body cam video and no investigation. Nor did any of the officers appear to consider what had occurred to be out-of-the-ordinary. It appeared to be routine – how things were handled when someone had a mental illness and didn’t cooperate.

Clearly, Officer Timberlake’s action shows there are still problems in Fairfax. But Chief Rosseler’s immediate response and Descarno’s decision to prosecute sends a strong and much needed message that unnecessary brutality will not be tolerated.

It’s likely the police union will defend Timberlake. Others will argue that more serious changes should have been filed against him.

What Fairfax should not forget is that John Greer and Natasha McKenna paid the price that brought us to this point. Their lives mattered and we should not return to the days before their deaths.



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.