In compiling the article for Sunday’s paper about the death of Natasha McKenna after she was Tasered four times, a number of items were omitted for various reasons related to space and deadlines. To provide additional context on this complicated case, here are some further important items to consider, beginning with this fact: The entire incident was captured on video.
The Sheriff’s Emergency Response Team regularly records their operations, and the Fairfax County police have said there is video of the “extraction” of McKenna. This presumably would include her being hit with four Taser shocks after she was handcuffed behind her back, shackled around the legs, a hobble strap connected to both restraints, and a spit mask placed over her face. The police, who are investigating the case for any possible criminal violation, have declined to release the video while the case is still under investigation. When it does come out, it may well join the growing canon of video of fatal law enforcement actions which has shocked the country.
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Facing six deputies, how big was Natasha McKenna?
How big, physically, was Natasha McKenna? We have reported at various times that she was 5 feet 3 inches tall and weighed 130 pounds. But in the deputies’ reports, several of those involved in trying to restrain her noted that she was so thin a standard “restraint belt” could not be used to immobilize her hands. “It was discovered that Inmate McKenna was physically too small in the torso for the belt to take effect,” one deputy wrote. “She could easily, with her hands restrained to the belt, maneuver the belt up to her chest and therefore be able to attack with her hands.”
So the deputies had to take the belt off of her, and then cuff her behind her back. They then attached those handcuffs to one end of the ripp hobble, with the other end attached to the leg shackles. Removing the belt prolonged the process of getting McKenna controlled, and preceded the first of the four Taser jolts.
An autopsy report should show what McKenna’s height and weight were when she died, though she spent five days on life support at Inova Fairfax Hospital after her heart stopped beating in the jail on Feb. 3. She was removed from life support and died on Feb. 8. She was 37. No cause of death has yet been released.
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Fairfax homicide detectives turned away from jail
After McKenna was rushed to the hospital on Feb. 3, someone called the Fairfax County police. Four law enforcement officials familiar with the case said that homicide detectives then went to the jail and were refused access, because McKenna was still alive. But the reports show that two Fairfax homicide detectives and a crime scene detective then went to the Inova Fairfax Hospital and conducted interviews there.
Sheriff Stacey Kincaid declined to discuss the specifics of McKenna’s case, but did say, “If we have a medical emergency, we call 911. If we have a person who has died, we call the police.” The sheriff’s office did call the police on Feb. 5, the officials said, when it became apparent that McKenna would not survive, and the police investigation began then.
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Experts say Taser inappropriate for McKenna
We consulted a number of experts about the use of a Taser on a restrained prisoner, and four of them went on the record opposing such a practice. Ron Martinelli, a criminologist and former police officer from San Jose, said force is not usually the best tactic with mentally ill prisoners. He questioned why deputies did not back off once McKenna showed signs of resisting.
“You need to treat that prisoner like a patient, not a suspect,” Martinelli said. “She is already restrained, why don’t you let her calm down?”
Jail officials said they typically do not withdraw from a cell extraction once it has begun.
Todd Markley, a retired Arlington County officer who now instructs on use of force at the Northern Virginia Criminal Justice Academy, said, “We’re allowed to use force for two purposes: defense and control. Officers are allowed to branch that out as they see reasonable, and I don’t see that as reasonable, based on the facts you’ve given me.”
Charles Drago, the former Assistant Chief of Police in Ft. Lauderdale, provides consulting and expert witness services for both plaintiff and defense attorneys in a variety of police practices including use of force and Taser-related incidents. Drago noted that “Taser still warns police officers in their training and their warning bulletins. When you use a Taser on someone showing signs of excited delirium or or increased heart rate or increased perspiration, sometimes people end up dead.”
Drago also noted, “If you put too many of these charges together, the folks in the medical field say when you go above three (charges), you get into a gray area about whether it causes cardiac arrest or not. It’s all part of the analysis. That’s the problem with the Taser. It doesn’t have a mind of its own. Officers have to read the warning bulletins.”
McKenna’s previous scrapes with the jail deputies
McKenna had two prior incidents with deputies that were likely in the minds of both her and the deputies tasked with getting her out of her cell on the morning of Feb. 3. In the first, on Jan. 27, reports show that she had covered the window of her cell door with paper, then a blanket and a sheet. When a deputy pulled the blanket out of the cell through the food slot, with McKenna pulling on the other side, one of McKenna’s fingers was cut. “Look what you did to my finger,” the deputies wrote that she said, indicating her left index finger which had previously been amputated at the tip. But she later told the mental health staff that her finger was fine and that it was an old wound opening up again.
Four days later, on Jan. 31, McKenna reportedly placed her mattress in front her door, again blocking the window so deputies could not see inside. When the deputies opened the door to pull the mattress away from the window, “Inmate McKenna was able to get her entire body out of the door and began trying to scratch and bite us,” one deputy wrote. The deputies placed her on the floor but McKenna continued to fight, and so one deputy “struck Inmate McKenna in the face with his open left hand to stop her from trying to bite and scratch him.” When she struggled further, another deputy “delivered a strike to her chest area with the side of his right hand.” She was then placed into a restraint chair.
This may be why, on Feb. 3, after McKenna agreed to be placed in handcuffs for a trip to Alexandria, she began yelling, “You promised you wouldn’t hurt me!”