A mentally ill woman who died after a stun gun was used on her at the Fairfax County jail in February was restrained with handcuffs behind her back, leg shackles and a mask when a sheriff’s deputy shocked her four times, incident reports obtained by The Washington Post show.
Natasha McKenna initially cooperated with deputies, placed her hands through her cell door food slot and agreed to be handcuffed, the reports show. But McKenna, whose deteriorating mental state had caused Fairfax to seek help for her, then began trying to fight her way out of the cuffs, repeatedly screaming, “You promised you wouldn’t hurt me!” the reports show.
Then, six members of the Sheriff’s Emergency Response Team, dressed in white full-body biohazard suits and gas masks, arrived and placed a wildly struggling 130-pound McKenna into full restraints, their reports state. But when McKenna wouldn’t bend her knees so she could be placed into a wheeled restraint chair, a lieutenant delivered four 50,000-volt shocks from the Taser, enabling the other deputies to strap her into the chair, the reports show.
The account comes from dozens of pages of sheriff’s deputy incident reports that provide the first complete account of the events leading to the death of the 37-year-old Alexandria mother that has troubled her family and local mental health advocates.
Fairfax County Sheriff Stacey Kincaid declined to comment on the case but defended the use of a stun gun on a restrained prisoner, saying it was “a means that is often useful to ensure the safety of a person” rather than using physical force to gain compliance. She said stun guns were used “occasionally” on prisoners who are already restrained.
But four law enforcement experts interviewed by The Post questioned why a Taser was used on a restrained woman, how many times she was shocked and whether handling a mentally ill person with such force was the best approach.
“They didn’t need to confront her this way. They made it worse,” said McKenna’s mother, Marlene Williams, in the family’s first interview about the case. “She was mentally sick.”
Within minutes of being shocked by the Taser, McKenna stopped breathing. The reports show that jail deputies were unable to revive her using CPR and that her heart was stopped for about 20 minutes before paramedics revived her in the ambulance en route to Inova Fairfax Hospital. Her heart then stopped three more times over the next hour before she was stabilized, according to the sheriff’s deputies’ reports.
The reports show that deputies quickly placed a defibrillator on McKenna, but three times the machine advised “Do Not Shock,” which it will do when a heart has completely stopped, experts said, because an electric shock will not restart the heart.
“This is a tragedy,” Kincaid said, adding that she planned to meet with McKenna’s family when the investigation is done. She said she was “disappointed that someone chose to release internal documents prior to the completion of the criminal investigation” and that she wanted the full information about the case to be released.
Fairfax police are awaiting results of the autopsy and a finding on cause of death by the state medical examiner before presenting the case to Fairfax Commonwealth’s Attorney Raymond F. Morrogh. Morrogh will ultimately rule on whether criminal charges are warranted. Morrogh declined to comment on the deputies’ reports.
Numerous experts said the use of a stun gun on a fully restrained prisoner was an unreasonable use of force, particularly in a jail setting where a person is unlikely to flee. They also said Tasers are not recommended for use on the mentally ill, that even the Taser manufacturer warns against using them on people in a state of “excited delirium,” and that using a stun gun more than three times is thought to be above the threshold for use on a single person.
“She wasn’t a threat; she wasn’t going anywhere; she was restrained,” said Richard Lichten, a use-of-force expert and former jail official in Los Angeles. “It feels excessive, unnecessary and out of policy, based on what you’re telling me.”
Fairfax Lt. Tony Shobe said the response team’s typical practice is not to withdraw after a cell extraction process has begun. “Once you’ve engaged with someone, you know you’re going to have to deal with them at some point, you go ahead and control them.” If the team were to pull back, “you still have to deal with them [the prisoner] at some point,” Shobe said.
McKenna’s mental health history was well known to Fairfax jail officials when the incident occurred, and it was the reason Fairfax was trying to remove her from her cell that morning. After McKenna allegedly punched an Alexandria City police officer on Jan. 15 and was hospitalized for mental health treatment, the Alexandria police on Jan. 20 obtained a felony warrant for assaulting a police officer.
Fairfax police picked her up on that charge early Jan. 26 and took her to the Fairfax jail. McKenna’s mental state was poor, and the deputies’ reports show that she had brief, violent incidents with deputies Jan. 27 and Jan. 31, including one in which a deputy was scratched. McKenna also repeatedly urinated or defecated on her cell floor, the reports show, which is treated as a biohazard by the jail.
But because McKenna was technically Alexandria’s prisoner, Fairfax could not petition a magistrate to have her placed in mental health care. Over the next week, Kincaid said, Fairfax deputies called Alexandria police three times seeking to have McKenna picked up, but Alexandria did not do so.
Alexandria police spokeswoman Crystal Nosal said she would not comment on the case while the investigation was pending and that Alexandria was “doing our own investigation on our practices on picking up inmates in other jurisdictions.”
On the morning of Feb. 3, the reports show, Fairfax deputies decided to drive McKenna to Alexandria themselves. The Alexandria jail was notified and agreed to be ready to receive her. Deputies first spoke to McKenna at 8:15 a.m. and told her that she was going to Alexandria, the reports show, and at 9 a.m., a lieutenant and a sergeant spoke to her a second time.
The Post is not naming the deputies involved because they are the subject of a criminal investigation and no ruling has been made on McKenna’s cause of death.
Jail supervisors decided to use the response team to move McKenna from her cell to a transport van because of her prior incidents with deputies and to wear biohazard suits over their standard armored outfits because of her prior urination. About 10:20 a.m., a jail lieutenant began speaking with McKenna and “told her we were going to take her to Alexandria and I was going to need her to cooperate with us,” the lieutenant wrote. “She acknowledged me and said ‘OK.’ ”
She placed her hands through the food slot in the door, and the lieutenant placed handcuffs on her. He then attached one end of a Ripp hobble — a strap with a clip commonly used to attach handcuffs to another object — to the handcuffs and the other end to the outside cell door knob.
“Her demeanor began to change,” the lieutenant wrote, “and she attempted to draw her arms back into the food slot.”
A nearby deputy recorded that McKenna yelled, “You promised you wouldn’t hurt me! You promised you wouldn’t hurt me!” and then placed her feet on the inside cell door, pulling her body off the ground as she tried to pull free from the cuffs and Ripp hobble, the documents show.
The white-suited response team then arrived and with some difficulty over a period of perhaps 20 minutes fully restrained McKenna, according to the deputies’ report, with the Ripp hobble connecting her hand and leg cuffs behind her back and a mesh spit mask placed over her face.
A restraint chair was then brought in, with straps to hold the arms and legs. McKenna refused to sit in the chair, and reports show that one deputy punched her in the knees four times trying to get her to bend her legs and sit down.
The lieutenant wrote that he told McKenna that if she did not comply, he would use the Taser, and she continued to resist. He then removed the cartridge that fires the probes from the Taser and placed it directly against her right thigh, a “drive stun” that does not have the same effect as shooting the two electric probes. Taser’s instructions to law enforcement call drive stun a “pain compliance” method which “generally does not cause incapacitation” and “may not be effective on emotionally disturbed persons.”
It was not effective on McKenna. She “continued to lock her legs out and refuse orders,” the lieutenant wrote. He reinserted the cartridge that powers the probes and fired it into her right thigh. Such use by the Taser is intended to cause “neuro-muscular incapacitation,” experts said, often locking up muscles and allowing police or deputies to restrain someone before they regain control of their muscles.
But McKenna “continued to actively resist and attempt to kick the deputies,” the lieutenant wrote. He then shocked her two more times using the direct contact “drive stun” method.
McKenna was, at last, strapped into the restraint chair. A nurse checked on her, but McKenna was still struggling, so the nurse decided to take her vital signs when the chair was wheeled down to the transport van.
But at the jail entrance, the nurse “was unable to get a pulse from Inmate McKenna” and called for an ambulance. According to the deputies’ reports, it was about 11:18 a.m. The deputies removed McKenna from the chair and restraints and began CPR.
Paramedics arrived at 11:24 a.m., the reports show. McKenna was loaded into an ambulance at 11:29 a.m. A sergeant who rode in the ambulance with McKenna reported that her pulse was restored at 11:40 a.m., or about 20 minutes after she had first stopped breathing. Doctors say the brain begins to suffer serious damage after three minutes without oxygen and that after 15 minutes, the damage is likely irreversible. The sergeant wrote that McKenna’s breathing stopped three more times, including once for five minutes, before she was stabilized at 1:13 p.m. She died several days later.
Marlene Williams, the mother, remembers her daughter as “lovable and friendly.” McKenna was diagnosed with schizophrenia at age 12 and graduated from W.T. Woodson High School, where she played basketball. Williams said she had not spoken with her daughter since November, so the events leading up to her arrest are unclear.
“I just want the truth from everyone,” Williams said. “Let her die with dignity.”