THE FIGHT went out of Natasha McKenna shortly after she was shot at least four times with a Taser stun gun by sheriff’s deputies at the Fairfax County jail on Feb. 3. She rapidly lost consciousness and, five days later, died.
But at 5-foot-3, and weighing perhaps 130 pounds, how much fight could have been in her to begin with? Why was it necessary for six sheriff’s deputies, assigned to an elite squad specializing in dealing with unruly inmates, to use such force in dealing with a woman diagnosed with mental illness? Was no other tactical option available?
Authorities in Fairfax are still awaiting a ruling on Ms. McKenna’s case from the medical examiner, who will determine the manner and cause of death. Reaching such a determination may be complex, involving considerable analysis of various bodily organs.
Even if the medical examiner rules Ms. McKenna’s death a homicide, that doesn’t necessarily mean she was murdered, or even that a crime was committed. It would simply mean she died as a result of the deputies’ actions.
Nonetheless, it would provide a valuable bit of data for Fairfax police investigators and prosecutors, who will decide on subsequent steps, including whether to bring charges against the sheriff’s deputies.
So far, the investigation has been marked by an absence of transparency. From bare-bones news releases, the public has learned simply that Ms. McKenna, a 37-year-old mother of a young daughter, struggled with deputies who tried to remove her from her cell in Fairfax and transfer her to Alexandria, where she was wanted for assaulting a police officer.
No doubt, she presented a challenge by refusing to comply with deputies, who wore helmets and came wielding sticks. It is even conceivable that the medical examiner would rule that she was in the grip of “excited delirium,” a medically dubious condition said to impart preternatural physical strength to sufferers and sometimes used as a supposed justification for the use of excessive force.
It’s not clear whether the deputies involved had received crisis intervention training, which might have helped them to calm Ms. McKenna and achieve their objective without a melee.
In the event, the deputies’ attempt to remove her from the cell quickly devolved into a scrum on the jailhouse floor, according to people who have seen a video of the incident. Repeatedly, she was shot with a stun gun until her body went slack. At that point or shortly thereafter, she lost consciousness and never regained it.
We have asked Sheriff Stacey A. Kincaid whether her office is reviewing its policy on the use of stun guns. She won’t say. We have asked if her office is reassessing the need for crisis intervention training, which, as a candidate for the position she now holds, she dismissed. She won’t say.
Has the sheriff’s office learned any lessons from Ms. McKenna’s death? Sheriff Kincaid won’t say. Has it taken steps to avoid repeating such an incident? The sheriff won’t say. Have the deputies involved been disciplined in any way? Is this really the best the sheriff’s office can do?
So far, the authorities in Fairfax are silent.