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Tuesday, April 28, 2015

True Justice for Natasha McKenna and Fairfax County

Yesterday on Facebook, some of my friends and I were discussing the tragic death of Natasha McKenna while she was in custody at the Fairfax County jail. The Fairfax jail guards had placed the mentally ill McKenna in restraints and tasered her numerous times while trying to extract her from her jail cell and transfer her to Alexandria. Subsequently, McKenna died at Fairfax Hospital after she stopped breathing and her heart stopped.

The Fairfax County Police Department has been investigating this death. In numerous editorials (and here), the Washington Post urged the Fairfax Sheriff, Stacey Kincaid, to provide a full explanation of what happened without stalling or brushing any facts under the rug. I certainly agree with that.

Some of my Facebook friends, however, took that to mean that Sheriff Kincaid should immediately go before the public to answer all questions and clear everything up yesterday. Indeed, some were muttering about primaries and getting rid of her. The undercurrent is that the Sheriff’s Department clearly did wrong, and heads should roll, including hers.

The problem is that is unfair and is a rush to judgment by people who do not know all the facts but are buying into a sometimes all too true narrative about police abuse of authority and police brutality. And we need to admit how often that is the case.

But “all too often” and “too frequently” are not the same as “always”.  So, I argued back that before jumping to conclusions, people ought to take a deep breath and wait for the investigation to be completed. Of course, given the track record of the Fairfax County Police Department, and their own history of stonewalling cases, I can well understand the impatience and frustration. However, it is not fair to conflate this case with that of John Geer, who was shot by a Fairfax police officer. It took 18 months before Fairfax County released any information, including the name of the officer who fired the shot. Plus, the county police department only released that information after a judge ordered it.

In contrast, the McKenna investigation has been going on for under three months, aPost, other media, and those of us following this case have begun raising legitimate questions about how this was handled. There is nothing unreasonable about the questions. But what is unreasonable is the rush to judgment before the investigation is finished. Again, we are not talking about the 18 month long stonewall that occurred with John Geer. We are talking less than three months -- the medical examiner just released the autopsy results today.
nd the medical examiner’s office just released the autopsy results. According to the Washington Post, the cause of death was “excited delirium". As the Post editorial points out, none of the medical literature, nor various medical societies, list excited delirium as an actual medical diagnosis. Only medical examiners use the terms, usually for those in police custody who have died due to stun gun use.

I don’t expect Sheriff Kincaid to go before the public until after the completed investigation gives her a fuller picture of the situation, Nevertheless, the Washington 
Before I go further, I want to address the big gorilla in the room: we need to have a serious discussion about how we treat the mentally ill. There are deeper, more serious questions about why this woman, who we know suffered from schizophrenia, was even in police custody rather than under treatment in a secure medical facility. That, however, is a different topic, for a different day.  It is one I will return to in the future.

But for now, we need to deal with how any prisoner is treated while in custody. Right now, Baltimore is being torn apart by riots over that very issue. And while Fairfax is a long way from Baltimore’s mean streets, the issue is no less important here. You measure a society’s decency by how it treats its most powerless members. Likewise, you judge an institution by how well it handles its most difficult situations.

And the situation here was that a severely mentally ill woman, who was already shackled to a special chair, was stunned four times to control her agitation. Tasering is a technique that works by inflicting electric shock and pain. So, the very first question is why were they in effect punishing a severely mentally ill person to bring her into compliance?  Another very troubling element is the following stated policy: “once we begin an extraction, we do not stop it.”

Infliction of pain and refusal to back down are all elements of a mindset that is about controlling an unruly prisoner by showing that person who is boss. It is about maintaining discipline and asserting control. And in the case of an unruly prisoner who is not mentally ill, but just rowdy, it might be perfectly appropriate to assert such authority (though I have my doubts about use of a Taser ever). But it is anything but proper treatment of somebody who is severely mentally impaired and not in their sound mind. Indeed, absent the threat of harm to the guard or self-harm to the prisoner, withdrawing and giving her a timeout to calm down might have been exactly the right course to take. Without a compelling reason, there is no excuse to continue an extraction is such a case. Treating her like a patient, not a prisoner, might have been exactly what was needed.

Further, if you know you have an impossible to control inmate, why was there no attempt to medicate her? If an inmate had an infection or other physical illness, would a doctor not have prescribed an antibiotic, a painkiller? Why wasn’t a doctor available to provide sedatives, anti-psychotics, or other medication to control her mental symptoms?

We should be asking the following questions: what is the policy for handling extractions of unruly inmates; was that policy followed in this case; how, if at all, did guards deviate from that policy; and was the policy, itself, flawed? Does the Sheriff’s Office need to revise its policies? Do the guards need better training and more oversight? Use of stun guns was temporarily suspended, but will their use resume? Why? What disciplinary action will the six guard face and why? What exactly needs to change to make sure this does not happen again?

These questions can’t be answered without knowing the all the facts. Investigators now have some of the facts, including the actual cause of death. Now they have to put all that together and present the total picture to the Sheriff, who must then review it against policy and decide what needs to change, what improvement in training and oversight of her staff needs to be implemented, what disciplinary action needs to be taken, and what needs to be done to keep this from happening again. Sheriff Kincaid needs time to review all the facts and provide a satisfactory statement going forward.

It is not unreasonable for the investigation to take time. And three or four months is not an unreasonable time frame for that to happen. That is not stonewalling, that is being thorough. But it should not take 18 months, or even six months. The old adage, “justice delayed is justice denied,” is just as true in this case as in any other. And justice should not be denied to Natasha McKenna’s family. But real justice needs real answers and that does take time to do right.