The election is still more than four months away, but the candidates for Fairfax County sheriff are sparring over the handling of a schizophrenic inmate who died after being Tasered by deputies at the jail in February.
Republican candidate Bryan Wolfe said in an interview last week that Natasha McKenna might still be alive if Sheriff Stacey Kincaid (D) had heeded his call for deputies to receive more training in handling the mentally ill when they squared off in the previous election.
Wolfe also sharply criticized Kincaid for refusing to release a video of the encounter between sheriff’s deputies and McKenna that preceded her death, saying the public has a right to assess whether excessive force was used.
Kincaid, who beat Wolfe by double digits in 2013 to become the county’s first female sheriff, disputed both assertions. In Fairfax, the sheriff runs the jail and provides courthouse security.
“The Natasha McKenna case is one of the biggest mismanaged and mishandled cases I’ve seen in 30 years of police work,” said Wolfe, a former Fairfax City police officer and supervisor. “With crisis intervention training deputies would have been able to de-escalate her actions that day.”
McKenna’s death raised concerns among mental health advocates and law enforcement experts and is likely to be a top issue in the Nov. 3 election. It also comes amid a national debate about the use of force by law enforcement sparked by incidents in Ferguson, Mo., Baltimore and the shooting of an unarmed man by Fairfax police in August 2013.
Kincaid wrote in a statement that her tenure has been marked by a consistent push to help the mentally ill. She wrote that she had moved female inmates suffering from mental health problems into a more therapeutic environment, brought in counselors, launched a resource fair for inmates and is establishing a 24-hour tele-psychiatry line.
She has said previously that people with mental illness and those with drug abuse issues make up about half of the jail’s population.
After McKenna’s death, Kincaid revised the curriculum of the sheriff’s academy to include a nationally recognized model for crisis intervention training, which teaches law enforcement officers how to handle the mentally ill and people with developmental disabilities who are being disruptive or violent.
The most recently available figures show only 32 out of 500 Fairfax sheriff’s deputies — about 6 percent — have the training. The percentage is significantly lower than the Fairfax police department and some sheriff’s offices in surrounding counties.
But Kincaid also wrote that crisis intervention training was just the start of dealing effectively with the mentally ill.
“All the CIT training in the world will not solve this systemic problem of mentally ill persons who are under arrest, brought to jail and in need of treatment,” Kincaid wrote. “We urgently need a strong jail diversion program and a readily available crisis care center.”
Kincaid also wrote that she would “welcome” the release of the video of the encounter between McKenna and deputies, but it is now in police custody because of an ongoing criminal investigation into her death.
The McKenna incident began in late January after Fairfax police arrested and transported her to the jail after she was charged with punching a police officer in Alexandria earlier that month, police said. McKenna’s family said she was diagnosed as a schizophrenic at age 12.
The sheriff’s office made three requests for Alexandria police to pick up McKenna over the next week, but they never did — a fact that is under a separate investigation by Alexandria police. During that time, McKenna had two brief but violent encounters with deputies.
With McKenna’s mental health deteriorating, Fairfax sheriff’s officials determined they would move her back to Alexandria themselves. A six-member extraction team went to her cell on the morning of Feb. 3 and taped the encounter.
McKenna initially cooperated with deputies, allowing them to handcuff her, according to an incident report. But she grew agitated and began resisting them, shouting, “You promised you wouldn’t hurt me!”
During the next 20 minutes or so, the deputies wrestled McKenna to try to restrain her, according to the incident report. They shackled her legs, put an anti-spitting mask over her head and then tried to place her in a restraining chair. When she continued to resist, she was Tasered four times.
McKenna was strapped into the chair and transferred to a jail entrance, where nurses discovered that she had no pulse, according to an incident report. Emergency crews were called, but McKenna died at a hospital days later. Her cause of death was ruled to be “excited delirium,” a condition in which the subject grows so agitated that she suffers heart or lung problems and dies.
Law enforcement and mental health experts questioned why a Taser was used on a restrained woman and whether handling a mentally ill person with such force was the best approach to get her to comply.
Wolfe said he would permanently ban the use of Tasers at the jail and install cameras to ensure the safety of inmates and deputies alike. Kincaid has instituted a temporary ban on Tasers and said she asked for cameras for the jail last fall, but the county has not funded the request.
Wolfe said he was especially concerned because he called for more crisis intervention training during the last election. During a forum at the time, Kincaid said such training was not appropriate for sheriff’s deputies and that deputies were well-trained to handle people with mental illness.
“That may work with the police department . . . on the street,” Kincaid said. “In the adult detention we have a controlled environment, a lot different than being out on the street.”
Wolfe has 26 years with Fairfax City police, including 10 as a supervisor. Before that, he served in the Air Force as a security police officer. Kincaid had served nearly three decades in the sheriff’s office, filling roles in each of its departments.