When Will We Demand Justice for Natasha McKenna?

Natasha McKenna

There have been no marches for her.

Natasha McKenna’s name eased in and out of America’s collective consciousness before it could make an imprint, just like those of Aura Rosser, Tanisha Anderson and so many other African-American women killed by police before her.


But the information that we do know is heartbreaking.

McKenna, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia when she was 12 years old, died Feb. 8 after a lieutenant at the Fairfax County, Va., Sheriff’s Department delivered four 50,000-volt shocks with a Taser to restrain her while she was having a psychotic episode in custody on Feb. 3. Why she was there in the first place reveals how ill-equipped law-enforcement officers are to effectively interact with and restrain people who have severe mental illness.


McKenna, the 37-year-old mother of a 7-year-old girl, called 911 on Jan. 25 to report that someone had assaulted her, according to the Washington Post. When Fairfax County deputies arrived on the scene, it was determined that McKenna should be taken to a local hospital for examination.

Once she arrived at the hospital, Fairfax officials were informed that there was a warrant for McKenna’s arrest in Alexandria, Va., stemming from a Jan. 15 encounter with police officers there. According to Alexandria police, McKenna had “punched one of the officers in the face. Another officer deployed OC [oleoresin capsicum, or pepper] spray and the three ended up fighting on the ground.”


During that Jan. 15 encounter, McKenna was taken to an Alexandria hospital but was eventually released. Despite being aware of her mental-health issues, the Alexandria authorities put out an arrest warrant for her a few days after the incident for the alleged assault on an officer. This led to her being detained on Jan. 26 and held at the Fairfax County jail until Alexandria police officers could come pick her up.

Despite repeated calls from the Fairfax County Sheriff’s Department, however, the Alexandria police never came for McKenna. This set the stage for the fatal incident that would leave McKenna’s family searching for answers. On Feb. 3, with her mental health rapidly deteriorating, Fairfax authorities made arrangements to deliver McKenna to Alexandria.


McKenna, who was approximately 5 feet 3 inches and weighed 130 pounds, fought against being restrained. Finally, according to the Post, McKenna’s hands were “cuffed behind her back and tied to the shackles on her feet and her face was covered with a mask to prevent biting and spiting.” When she would not bend her knees to sit in a restraint chair, she was shocked with the four 50,000 volts from the Taser. She went into cardiac arrest and died at the hospital several days later after being removed from life support.

“They didn’t need to confront her this way. They made it worse,” McKenna’s mother, Marlene Williams, told the Post. “She was mentally sick.”


In an autopsy report released Tuesday, McKenna’s cause of death was listed as “excited delirium associated with physical restraint including use of conductive energy device, contributing: Schizophrenia and Bi-Polar disorder.”

The FBI defines excited delirium as a “serious and potentially deadly medical condition involving psychotic behavior, elevated temperature and an extreme fight-or-flight response by the nervous system. Failure to recognize the symptoms and involve emergency medical services (EMS) to provide appropriate medical treatment may lead to death.”


Detainees suffering with excited delirium—characterized as a medical emergency disguised as a law-enforcement issue—should receive immediate medical attention, not increasingly brutal force. According to Harvey J. Volzer, an attorney for McKenna’s family, she arrived at the hospital after she was tased with two black eyes, a bruised arms and a finger that required amputation.

Not only has the diagnosis of excited delirium long been suspected of being used as a cop-out to avoid police-brutality cases and lawsuits, but there is no one—not from the Fairfax County Sheriff’s Department, not from the Alexandria Police Department—taking responsibility for the roles they played in McKenna’s death. (Calls for comment to the Fairfax County sheriff and the Alexandria police were not returned.)


And with barely any public pressure—certainly not the level of national attention driving support for 25-year-old Freddie Gray or other recent victims of police brutality—McKenna’s story languishes on the fringes, as do the stories of so many other women with mental illnesses who are killed by police with barely a ripple of outrage to remember them by.

To better prepare officers for encounters with people with mental illnesses, Fairfax County implemented the Crisis Intervention Training program in 2001. The program, so far, is voluntary, and participating officers have undergone 40 hours of training to recognize symptoms of mental illness and de-escalate potentially violent situations.


It is unclear if the six-member Sheriff’s Emergency Response Team that forcefully restrained, masked and repeatedly tased McKenna had the specialized training. Even more damning, Fairfax County has the lowest percentage of CIT-trained deputies in Virginia at just 6.4 percent, compared with 41.4 percent in Alexandria.

Fairfax County Sheriff Stacey Kincaid says that there is a video of the incident that led to McKenna’s death, and she says it will eventually be released to the public. When that day comes, the outrage that such a video typically sparks will probably follow, but for how long and to what extent?


Will we demand justice for Natasha McKenna?

Even though #BlackLivesMatter was created by three black women, and women are still very much the heart and the soul of the movement, men have migrated to the center, both in leadership and in whose lives are deemed worthy of collective concern and organized disruption.


McKenna did absolutely nothing wrong. The criminal-justice system failed her. The mental-health system failed her. And, arguably, we’re failing her now. There may never be an uprising in her name and her hashtag may never trend, but she mattered.

Somebody, anybody, sing a black-girl song.

This is not a zero-sum game or an either-or proposition. Now more than ever, we must rededicate ourselves to demanding justice for black women—especially the most vulnerable among us—with as much passion and conviction as we do for black men, because there is no such thing as halfway justice.

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