When Natasha McKenna called 911, she did not expect to be thrown in jail for a prior warrant. But that is where the 37-year-old woman with schizophrenia was taken days after her emergency call, violently restrained, and tased with four 50,000-volt shocks that ultimately killed her.
On Tuesday, a chief prosecutor announced that no charges will be brought against the deputies involved in McKenna’s death. According to Raymond F. Morrogh of Fairfax County, Virginia, the officers acted within their rights when they tried to subdue the mentally ill woman.
The lethal encounter occurred last February, days after McKenna called 911 to report an assault. She was brought to a hospital for an examination, but subsequently taken to Fairfax County Jail for assaulting an Alexandria officer weeks before. Jail staff repeatedly tried to contact Alexandria authorities to pick her up because the Fairfax officials were not legally able to take McKenna, who became increasingly distressed behind bars, to a mental health facility. But when the Fairfax staff eventually tried to take McKenna to Alexandria themselves, she became more despondent and lashed out when authorities tried to restrain her.
Even though her hands and feet were cuffed and shackled, six officers in biohazard masks were brought in to subdue her. One of them used a Taser to deliver the four deadly shocks that stopped McKenna’s heart within minutes. Medics were able to revive her that day, but McKenna died several days later — leaving behind a 7-year-old daughter.
A medical examiner later concluded that she died of excited delirium, a dubious condition the medical community does not officially recognize but is nevertheless used as the cause of death for many victims of police tasing. Legal experts claim the term is used to downplay officers’ deadly use of stun guns and physical force.
“Ms. McKenna’s recent combative behavior included biting, scratching, spitting, kicking, and punching,” Morrogh wrote in an official report that characterized McKenna as a 5’4, 181-pound woman with “superhuman strength.”
“There is no evidence that any of the deputies acted maliciously, sadistically or with the intent to punish or cause harm to Ms. McKenna at any point in the struggle,” the report concluded. “To the contrary, they did their best, under very difficult circumstances, to restrain, control and prevent Ms. McKenna from injuring herself or others.”
While tragic, McKenna’s treatment was no anomaly. From beginning to end, her death mirrored the plight of hundreds of thousands of mentally ill people in the criminal justice system today.
A 2012 study determined that half of all people killed by police have a mental illness, even though cops are regularly called to help deescalate those in crisis. These tragedies are attributed to a deadly combination of poor training in how to deal with mentally ill people, as well as standard police tactics — like yelling commands — that actually exacerbate individuals’ symptoms. Co-responder teams, which pair officers and mental health professionals in the field, are ideal for interacting with people who have a mental illness, but most police departments do not require the collaboration.
But the problems do not stop for people with mental illness, like McKenna, who wind up behind bars. Drastic cuts to hospitals’ mental health budgets means people in need of special psychiatric care are, instead, criminalized and diverted to correctional facilities, where staff are ill-equipped to handle their specific needs.
In addition to having little to no access to psychiatric care behind bars, people with mental illness are routinely abused by corrections officers. A Human Rights Watch (HRW) report detailed rampant abuse in the form of beating inmates bloody, breaking their body parts, and using stun guns and chemical sprays on them. Some officials beat inmates to death, while others kill inmates out of sheer neglect. Many people are thrown in solitary confinement for extended periods of time, which has negative impacts on individuals’ physical and psychological health.
“The violence can traumatize already vulnerable men and women, aggravating their symptoms and making future mental health treatment more difficult,” says the HRW report. “In some cases, including several documented in this report, the use of force has caused or contributed to prisoners’ deaths.”