On February 3, 2015, Natasha McKenna, a 37 year old woman with a diagnoses of schizophrenia, who was being detained in the Fairfax County, Virginia jail, stopped breathing after a stun gun was used on her. She had been restrained in her cell by six deputies with handcuffs behind her back, leg shackles and a face mask prior to being shocked four (some reports say six) times. She was taken to a hospital, placed on life support, and died several days later, leaving a seven year old daughter.
Why was Natasha McKenna tasered? Tasers are not recommended for use in the mentally ill. McKenna’s mental health challenges were well known to involved parties. She was diagnosed with schizophrenia at the age of 12. She had no history of serious criminal convictions, but was known for her erratic behavior. She had been arrested on January 15, 2015 by Alexandria, Virginia police after creating a disturbance at a Hertz car rental location. She ran from police, resisted arrested, and was combative with officers. That incident resulted in hospitalization at a psychiatric facility. By the time she was restrained at the Fairfax County jail and tasered, she had already spent eight days in the jail’s mental health unit. During that time she had engaged in bizarre behavior indicative of her deteriorating mental state: she had urinated and defecated in her cell and had been combative with deputies.
Why was a felony warrant for assault obtained for a person well-known to have mental health challenges? During her public disturbance on January 15, she punched a cop, bit another cop. She was not arrested, however; she was transferred by the Alexandria, Virginia police to a psychiatric facility where she was hospitalized for several days. Despite this transfer, the police issued a felony warrant for assault. By January 26, she had been released. On that day, she called police to report an assault. Workers at the store where she borrowed the phone reported she was dressed in hospital patient attire. When she was picked up by Fairfax County sheriff deputies, she was taken to jail rather than to a hospital, in large part because of the warrant for her arrest. She was viewed as a criminal rather than a person with mental health challenges.
Treating people with mental health challenges like criminals while denying them care hurts all of us. This was tragically demonstrated in 2007 when Seung-Hui Cho, who had been recognized as being severely mentally ill and briefly hospitalized, was not treated and went on to kill 32 people at Virginia Tech.
While providing CIT training for all law enforcement personnel is a useful goal, more basic steps can be immediately taken, such as not using a taser on a person who is already restrained and not using one on a person who is emotionally unstable. Widespread recognition of mental illness for what it is, a medical condition which renders the person vulnerable, would go a long way to preventing unnecessary tragedies like the death of Natasha McKenna.
Appointment information for Dr. Wexler: wexlerpsych.com