Natasha McKenna: When Killing a Black Woman in Crisis is “Professionalism”

The African American Policy Forum is deeply disappointed that the six officers who swarmed and Tasered Natasha McKenna to death in Fairfax (Va.) County Jail will face no criminal charges for their actions. We condemn the disregard for McKenna’s humanity that led to her detainment and death after she called 911 for mental health support. We are gravely concerned that this failure to prosecute effectively endorses the view that responsibility for her death falls on the person least in control of the situation—McKenna herself. The fact that McKenna’s call for help resulted in her being criminalized, detained and ultimately treated as a deadly biohazard evidences a system that views Black women in crisis as less than human.

A shocking video released on September 10 shows that McKenna stopped breathing after six officers in hazmat suits Tased the naked woman four times with 50,000 volts of electricity. McKenna was Tased while shackled, restrained in a chair, and covered with a hood. The tragedy that unfolded, which we can now all see, shows that McKenna's death was not a mere accident, nor was it dictated by any real concern for officer safety. It was a raw exercise of power, rationalized by the perception that McKenna’s behavior was evidence of willful disregard for their authority.

Fairfax County Sheriff Stacy Kincaid released the footage in an effort to show the “professionalism” and the “restraint and the patience that the deputies demonstrated.” Kincaid’s comments strain credibility. That McKenna was certainly terrified, confused and desperate was lost not only on the officers who killed her, but on the authorities who judged the officers' behavior to be “professional” and consistent with all applicable laws.

Unfortunately, McKenna’s death is no anomaly. The killing of Black women in crisis is all too familiar. Michelle Cusseaux, Tanisha Anderson, Shereese Francis, Kayla Moore, and Tyisha Miller were all met with deadly violence when they or their loved ones sought supportive intervention. Along with McKenna and many others whose names we don’t know, these Black women in mental health crises were brutalized by the very people who should have helped them.

McKenna’s mistreatment demonstrates the at-times deadly results of law enforcement being first responders in mental health crises. Police officers are not mental health professionals and often lack the skills and training necessary to handle such situations.

In February, McKenna called 911 during a mental health crisis. She had been diagnosed with schizophrenia at age 12. Instead of providing her with mental health support, officers brought McKenna to Fairfax County Jail on an outstanding warrant. After being held in jail for seven days, McKenna—who weighed 130 pounds and was 5’4’’ tall—was hooded and shackled by officers attempting to move her to a mental health facility. Within minutes of being Tased, she stopped breathing. She died in the hospital seven days later. After visiting her in the hospital, McKenna’s mother reported that her daughter's eyes were blackened, she was covered in bruises, and one of her fingers was missing.

The coroner classified McKenna’s cause of death as “excited delirium,” a term commonly used when deaths result from law enforcement use of Tasers that is not recognized by the medical community. Moreover, law enforcement ignored that the use of Tasers is not recommended on those suffering from mental illness.

The circumstances surrounding McKenna’s death are an indictment of a system that treats the most vulnerable members of our society as threats to the status quo rather than individuals in need of support. As a nation we must do better.

If we don’t speak up and force attention to McKenna’s story, those in power will face no repercussions for their blatant disregard for the value of her life. Join the African American Policy Forum, Amnesty International, Black Lives Matter DMV and SURJ NoVa in calling for an expedited Department of Justice investigation into McKenna’s death, along with immediate action to bring US policing practices in line with international human rights standards. CLICK HERE to sign Amnesty International’s petition calling for a swift and independent DOJ investigation, accompanied by concrete action including national guidelines for Taser use and the creation of a National Crime and Justice Task Force. Also CLICK HERE to add your name in support of SURJ NoVa and Black Lives Matter DMV’s call for the officers responsible for McKenna’s death to be fired.

The gross miscarriage of justice in Natasha McKenna’s case reminds us of the need to be vigilant in our call to #SayHerName. We must rededicate ourselves to uplifting her story. We must let the powers that be know that if we don’t get no justice, they won’t get no peace.

#SayHerName. #NatashaMcKenna