The mentally ill inmate at the Fairfax County jail had previously assaulted a deputy, so when it came time to transfer Natasha McKenna to face a charge, the sheriff’s office sent in a six-person team outfitted in padded gear to remove her from her cell, police said.
McKenna, a 37-year-old Alexandria resident, refused commands and resisted the deputies on Feb. 3, touching off a struggle, police said in a statement released Thursday. The 130-pound woman was Tasered “several times” and an anti-spitting mask was placed over her face, police later said in an interview. After she was restrained, McKenna continued to resist the officers, so she was placed in a special chair that restricted her movements.
But after being cleared by a nurse for transport to Alexandria and being taken to an entryway, McKenna went into cardiac arrest and later died at a hospital.
Fairfax police released the account as part of an ongoing investigation into the incident. It is the most detailed description yet of the events that ended with McKenna’s death, but it does not say how many times she was Tasered and how she allegedly resisted deputies that morning.
“It takes six deputies to restrain a 5’3”, 37-year-old woman?” Harvey J. Volzer, an attorney for McKenna’s family, asked in an e-mail to The Washington Post. He said that McKenna had been diagnosed with schizophrenia when she was 12.
“Where were persons trained to deal with prisoners with mental issues?” he asked.
The Fairfax sheriff’s office declined to answer further questions about the incident Thursday. In an e-mail, Capt. Tyler Corey said, “We are grateful for the diligence and professionalism displayed by the Police detectives as they work through their investigation.”
McKenna came to Fairfax’s attention Jan. 25 after police said she called 911, saying she had been assaulted. When a county police officer responded to the call, she gave him a report and agreed to go to a hospital for an examination. At the hospital, McKenna decided not to pursue the investigation, police said, and declined additional help from police.
Officers then discovered that McKenna had an outstanding warrant against her for assault on a law enforcement officer in Alexandria and took her into custody.
The charged stemmed from a Jan. 15 incident at a Hertz car rental agency, Alexandria police said. Employees reported that McKenna was being disruptive and acting strangely. Police arrived and McKenna was taken to local INOVA hospitals, where police obtained an involuntary detention order against her. She was eventually released. INOVA officials said patient confidentiality laws barred them from discussing why.
After learning about the incident in Alexandria, Fairfax police transported McKenna to the jail on Jan. 26. The Alexandria sheriff’s office said they notified Alexandria police three times that McKenna was ready to be transferred — the last on Feb. 2 — but that she was not picked up.
“We are still investigating why she wasn’t picked up,” said Crystal Nosal, an Alexandria police spokeswoman. Fairfax police said that McKenna assaulted a sheriff’s deputy at the jail Jan. 31.
By Feb. 2, staff at the jail had become alarmed at the deterioration in McKenna’s mental health, a person familiar with the case said.
Ron Honberg, legal director for the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, said the case was particularly sad because it appeared that Alexandria police acted correctly in initially seeking treatment for McKenna before charging her. Nosal said that McKenna was charged because she had allegedly assaulted an officer.
Honberg added that many law enforcement agencies have instituted crisis intervention training for officers that focuses on defusing tensions during encounters with the mentally ill. Aggressive responses by authorities, he added, can exacerbate problems.
“Acting aggressively to someone who is already fearful and paranoid is pouring gasoline on the fire,” Honberg said.
Corey, of the Fairfax sheriff’s office, said 32 out of about 500 deputies had been through crisis intervention training and an additional 80 had received training specific to mental health issues at the county jail. All deputies receive 10 to 12 hours of basic mental health training at the academy.
Police Chief Edwin C. Roessler Jr. has promised a quick and thorough investigation and monthly updates to the public. No decision has been made about whether to file charges in McKenna’s case.
“I've been watching events around the country and locally,” Roessler said. “As a profession, we need to be more transparent.”